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Coalition of groups calls for end to facial recognition program used to identify protester at Lafayette Square

Racial justice demonstrators gather near the White House on June 1.
Racial justice demonstrators gather near the White House on June 1. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
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A group of technology, civil rights and legal groups is calling for an end to a facial recognition system used by authorities in the Washington region that helped identify a demonstrator accused of assaulting a police officer during the forceful clearance of protesters from Lafayette Square last summer.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition and 22 other groups say the public hasn’t been given a meaningful chance to weigh in on the system and that research has shown such software often has greater error rates in identifying minorities than in identifying White men.

EPIC has also been seeking details from law enforcement agencies about their use of the National Capital Region Facial Recognition Investigative Leads System (NCRFRILS) for months through public records requests, but it has yet to receive any information, said Jeramie D. Scott, senior counsel for the group. Scott said he was troubled by the lack of transparency.

“Facial recognition is a particularly invasive surveillance technology that undermines democracy and First Amendment rights,” Scott said. “It’s particularly problematic because it’s least accurate with minorities.”

The use of facial recognition technology has been controversial nationwide. In February, the American Civil Liberties Union and more than 40 other groups called on the Biden administration to freeze federal use of facial recognition technology and block federal funds from being used by state and local governments to purchase or access the systems. The concerns are particularly acute regarding law enforcement agencies’ use of the technology, which has been linked to three wrongful arrests. Law enforcement officials argue it is a powerful tool in fighting crime.

Some attorneys, public defenders and facial recognition experts said they did not know NCRFRILS was in use before it was disclosed in court documents in a federal case against a Virginia man and reported by The Post in November.

Michael Joseph Peterson Jr. was charged with assaulting Capitol Police officers when law enforcement swept racial justice demonstrators from the streets around Lafayette Square in D.C. in June ahead of a widely criticized photo op by then-President Donald Trump at a nearby church.

Peterson fled after the alleged assaults and investigators found a photo of him on Twitter and fed it into NCRFRILS to help identify him, according to court records. Peterson was soon arrested.

His case remains pending, and his attorney declined to comment on it.

Facial recognition program used to identify Lafayette Square protester

NCRFRILS is a project of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that was first approved in 2017. More than a dozen law enforcement agencies have access to the database, and it contains about 1.4 million photos. MWCOG officials said it was never publicly announced because it was a pilot project. Funding was scheduled to expire in December, but it was renewed for another year.

Law enforcement officials said there are strict safeguards on its use and that it has helped crack a number of cases. They said it has not been used to identify other protesters.

Steve Kania, a spokesman for MWCOG, said the program could be curtailed following the signing of a new law in Virginia that mandates local agencies get the approval of the General Assembly before using facial recognition software. The law takes effect on July. 1.

“The pilot program is in the process of being re-evaluated,” Kania wrote in an email. “I understand that our committees will be discussing the issue in the coming weeks.”

Del. Lashrecse D. Aird (D-Petersburg), who sponsored the Virginia bill, said in a statement that “you can see from the broad, bipartisan support that Virginians from all walks of life and particularly Black and brown communities are very wary of this technology given its troubling history of misuse.”

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