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Birmingham Reassures: Police Tech Won’t Use Facial Recognition

The city is purchasing software that will produce real-time images of crimes for the police headquarters, but officials have explicitly said the software does not include facial recognition technology.

(TNS) — The City of Birmingham, Ala., is in the process of purchasing Motorola software for its Real Time Crime Center that’s capable of feeding real-time video and pictures of crimes in progress to Birmingham Police Headquarters.

That won’t include facial recognition software - the computerized identification of people through video and pictures, both Mayor Randall Woodfin and the Birmingham City Council emphasized this week.

On Monday afternoon, during the council’s budget and finance meeting, Council member Hunter Williams, chairman of the public safety committee, presented amended language to make it clear that facial recognition was not part of the package that the city was buying.

“We want to put explicit language in place around facial recognition to quell any concerns there might be around that particular technology,” Williams said. “There is obviously a lot of concern, some of it very legitimate, that the city of Birmingham was overstepping and becoming too much of Big Brother,” he said. The council approved the revised language and Williams said the software purchase will likely be on the agenda for next week’s city council meeting on Oct. 20.

Motorola added language to the agreement, per the council’s request:

“Facial recognition capabilities will not be deployed as part of this project,” Motorola said, adding that it would require a change order to add facial recognition.

“This vendor does offer that type of technology,” Williams said. “We are using it specifically for our Real Time Crime Center, and not to find probable cause from facial recognition.”

Woodfin weighed in on the matter on Monday afternoon.

“Multiple studies have shown that facial recognition software is unreliable and mis-identifies people of color at alarming rates,” Woodfin said in a statement released on Twitter. “Despite any rumors to the contrary, the City of Birmingham is not investing in facial recognition software now or anytime during my administration.”

The Real Time Crime Center already includes technology such as license plate reading software, which uses video to read license plates and help track down possible criminal suspects.

The new software can relay live video from police body cameras and from police car dash cameras to the Real Time Crime Center, Williams said.

Opponents of the software purchase say they would rather the city fully fund its library system than spend money on Motorola’s Command Central and BriefCam software for the Real Time Crime Center, said Rob Burton, an activist with the People’s Budget, which opposed the city’s recently adopted 2021 budget with drastic cuts to account for a $63 million revenue shortfall, including cuts and closures to the city library system.

“We’re opposed to both softwares,” Burton said. “We want to know why they’re choosing this software if they’re not looking for facial recognition. We don’t believe we should be spending $1.315 million on this software in the middle of a pandemic.”

Burton said even without facial recognition technology, the software could be used to monitor legally protected political activities such as protests and rallies. “That’s something we’re concerned about,” Burton said.

©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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