Don’t Believe the Algorithm

Hannah Fry at the Wall Street Journal: “The Notting Hill Carnival is Europe’s largest street party. A celebration of black British culture, it attracts up to two million revelers, and thousands of police. At last year’s event, the Metropolitan Police Service of London deployed a new type of detective: a facial-recognition algorithm that searched the crowd for more than 500 people wanted for arrest or barred from attending. Driving around in a van rigged with closed-circuit TVs, the police hoped to catch potentially dangerous criminals and prevent future crimes.

It didn’t go well. Of the 96 people flagged by the algorithm, only one was a correct match. Some errors were obvious, such as the young woman identified as a bald male suspect. In those cases, the police dismissed the match and the carnival-goers never knew they had been flagged. But many were stopped and questioned before being released. And the one “correct” match? At the time of the carnival, the person had already been arrested and questioned, and was no longer wanted.

Given the paltry success rate, you might expect the Metropolitan Police Service to be sheepish about its experiment. On the contrary, Cressida Dick, the highest-ranking police officer in Britain, said she was “completely comfortable” with deploying such technology, arguing that the public expects law enforcement to use cutting-edge systems. For Dick, the appeal of the algorithm overshadowed its lack of efficacy.

She’s not alone. A similar system tested in Wales was correct only 7% of the time: Of 2,470 soccer fans flagged by the algorithm, only 173 were actual matches. The Welsh police defended the technology in a blog post, saying, “Of course no facial recognition system is 100% accurate under all conditions.” Britain’s police force is expanding the use of the technology in the coming months, and other police departments are following suit. The NYPD is said to be seeking access to the full database of drivers’ licenses to assist with its facial-recognition program….(More).