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Macy’s faces $10 million lawsuit for using facial recognition to accuse man of robbery he did not commit

Harvey Eugene Murphy Jr, 61, spent 10 days in jail until his alibi was confirmed, during which time he was raped and beaten, according to his complaint

Macy’s lawsuit
A Macy's departmetn store in the United States, in a file image.Charles Krupa (AP)

A 61-year-old man has sued Macy’s department store and Sunglass Hut for using a facial recognition system to wrongfully accuse him of robbing their stores at gunpoint. The complainant, Harvey Eugene Murphy Jr., was arrested in October 2023 for the robbery in a Macy’s in the Houston area. While he was detained — until his alibi proved his innocence — Murphy was raped and beaten, according to his lawsuit. If confirmed, this would be the latest case in which facial recognition systems for public security have caused serious errors with sweeping consequences.

The story begins in January 2022, when two armed robbers stole thousands of dollars and products from a Sunglass Hut in the Houston area. Nearly two years later, police stopped Murphy while he was in an office in Texas to renew his driver’s license. According to the lawsuit, which The Guardian has advanced, Murphy claims that it was an employee of EssilorLuxottica, the parent company of Sunglass Hut, working with its retail partner Macy’s, who gave his name to the authorities.

While the Houston Police Department was investigating the armed robbery, this employee used facial recognition software to identify Murphy as one of the robbers. According to the suit, even though the image in the system came from low-quality cameras, the EssilorLuxottica employee called police to notify them that one of the culprits of the robbery had been identified with facial recognition technology. The worker also accused Murphy, who was living in California at the time, of committing two other robberies.

Murphy is now demanding $10 million in damages from Macy’s and EssilorLuxottica for what he alleges was a wrongful arrest based on the negligent use of facial recognition software. During his 10-day detention in the Harris County jail in Texas, he was beaten and gang raped, which seriously impacted him both physically and psychologically.

“The attack left him with permanent injuries that he has to live with every day of his life,” the lawsuit reads. “All of this happened to Murphy because the Defendants relied on facial recognition technology that is known to be error prone and faulty.”

Murphy’s case is a reminder of the shortcomings and dangers of facial recognition technology, especially when it comes to prosecuting suspected criminals, as it is known to produce false positives, especially against Black suspects. Murphy’s lawyer, Daniel Dutko, told local media that the technology is the only plausible explanation for his false identification and arrest.

“I know for a fact that studies show that African-Americans have a high rate of false positives based on facial recognition software. I also know comparing people who are older with pictures of them of other people when young, so aged gaps, have a very high rate up to 90% of false positives,” said Dutko.

Murphy had a criminal record from the 1980s and 1990s, which is why he appeared in the system that identified him by mistake. This would be the first known case of a white man being wrongly accused due to facial recognition software. “Mr. Murphy’s story is worrying for all citizens of this country,” Dutko said in a statement. “Anyone could be wrongly accused of a crime based on error-prone facial recognition software, just as he was.”

“It is scary for everyone in this country,” read the lawsuit. “Any one of us could be improperly charged with a crime and jailed based solely on error-prone facial recognition software.”

In recent years, several cases have highlighted the danger of trusting algorithms to arrest citizens. Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, for example, was wrongly arrested for a robbery in 2020, and Porcha Woodruff suffered the same fate last year, even though she was pregnant, and the real thief was not.

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