I FIRST fell in love with the city of Detroit as a teenager, when Motown and soul music dominated the youth clubs of Perth. My fascination deepened in the summer of 1967 when I heard a live radio broadcast about the “Detroit Riots” on my mum’s kitchen transistor. It was 1967 and the words “the Motor City is burning” have stayed etched on my memory ever since.

After numerous visits to Detroit and years of staying in touch with the city’s many changing faces, I regularly come across stories that connect back to Scotland. Last week, at the peak of protests about racial discrimination in American cities, it was the arrest of a man wrongly identified by facial recognition technology.

It was the warning that politicians across the parties had made back in 2020, when Holyrood’s Justice Sub-Committee on Policing pronounced that live facial recognition technology was not fit for use.

Police Scotland was told that before it could introduce the new technology, it needed to demonstrate that it complied with human rights and data protection legislation and, more importantly, that the technology eliminated inherent biases, which discriminated against ethnic minorities and women.

Without those safeguards, parliament’s sub-committee concluded any investment in facial recognition technology was unjustifiable.

Scotland’s caution was shared by legislators around the world. The New York Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likened some of the abuses of facial recognition to something fit for an episode of Black Mirror, the science-fiction TV show that explores the dangerous consequences of technology.

Detroit, a city pockmarked with substandard policing, did not heed the warning. On a Thursday afternoon in January this year, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams was in his office at a car supplies company when he got a call from the Detroit Police Department telling him to come to the station to be arrested. He thought it was a prank by a work colleague. But the dystopian message underlined the risks of facial recognition software.

An hour later, when Williams returned home and pulled into his driveway in Farmington Hills, in the suburbs of Michigan, a police car pulled up behind, blocking him in. Two officers got out and handcuffed Williams on his front lawn, in front of his wife and two young daughters. The police wouldn’t say why he was being arrested, only showing him a piece of paper with his photo and the words “felony warrant” and “larceny”.

The police drove Williams to a detention centre. He had his mugshot, fingerprints and DNA taken, and was held overnight. Around noon the day after, two detectives took him to an interrogation room and placed three pieces of paper on the table, face down. The detective turned over the first piece of paper. It was a still image from a surveillance video, showing a heavy-set man, dressed in black and wearing a red St Louis Cardinals cap, standing in front of a watch display.

Five watches worth $3800, had been shoplifted. Williams fitted two aspects of the broad description – he was black and overweight. Many more pieces of corroboration were ignored. He had never been near the store, he did not own the clothing in the image and had never worn a Cardinals cap.

The case has become something of a cause celebre in Detroit, taken up by civil libertarians and by those who distrust the increased use of technology in criminal prosecution.

It has also vindicated the Scottish Parliament report and a cross-party committee system that arrived at their decision. The Scottish Parliament explicitly stated that “current live facial recognition technology throws up far too many ‘false positives’ and contains inherent biases that are known to be discriminatory”.

Earlier last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a complaint with the city, demanding an absolute dismissal of the case, an apology and the removal of Williams’s information from Detroit’s criminal databases.

The store where the watches were stolen and who provided the raw CCTV footage on which the bogus facial imaging was based is a story in itself. Shinola is one of the flagship stores of Detroit’s revitalised downtown. Founded in 2011 and based in a warehouse within Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, it made its reputation employing skilled craft workers who had been made redundant by the contraction of the automobile industry.

Leather upholstery workers were put to crafting shoulder bags, belts and watch straps, and redundant engineers were rehired to design cool domestic appliances.

Remarkably, in post-industrial Detroit, Shinola has become a premium brand and its labour force is a point of distinction.

When asked in an online survey what they would pay for a fountain pen made in China, the answer was $5, for one made in America it was $10 and when asked what they would pay for a pen made by Detroit workers on union rates, the answer was $15. This is the value-added power of authenticity and brand salience and the subtle marketing beyond Shinola’s expansion.

Shinola could have happened in Glasgow but it did not. Much of the talent dumped from shipbuilding simply retrained or faced their final humiliating years as unemployment statistics.

A nationwide debate is raging in America about racism and law enforcement and whilst Williams’s arrest has none of the dark violence of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it has heaped pressure on the police when they least need it. The rage fuelling the summer of protests is not just about the horrific deaths and the actions of individual officers, it is about the biases within the system.

In contrast to Scotland, London’s Metropolitan Police have pioneered Live Facial Recognition (LFR) and have gone ahead in defiance of serious warnings from experts. The Met use a product called NeoFace Live “to help tackle serious violence, gun and knife crime, child sexual exploitation and help protect the vulnerable”.

Typically, cameras are focused on an area such as the entrances to a shopping mall and when people pass through the area their images are streamed directly to the live facial recognition system. The system has already been loaded with a so-called a “watchlist”: a list of offenders wanted by the police or the courts, or those who pose a risk of harm to others.

Much like the Scottish Parliament, the campaign group Amnesty International believe the technology is not at an advanced enough stage to be free from bias. Nor was pretrial research encouraging in London. One research project showed 93% of those stopped during all 10 public Met trials were wrongly identified.

In a press statement Amnesty argued that “the Met Police’s decision to introduce facial recognition tech poses a huge threat to human rights – and is contrary to multiple warnings from Amnesty and other rights groups, MPs and independent experts. This technology puts many human rights at risk, including the rights to privacy, non-discrimination, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, a public advocate of the technology, has defended her force’s actions. She has made three points in defence of facial recognition technology. Firstly, it does not store biometric data. Secondly, human officers will always make the decision about whether to intervene, and thirdly that the Met’s technology has been proved not to have an ethnic bias.

The problem is that all three of those claims were made equally loudly by the Detroit Police Department. But the arrest of Robert Williams – guilty of being black and overweight – has undermined those assurances and brought unwanted attention on the city’s police during a tense summer in which racial bias and policing has provoked global concern.

Scotland was right to be cautious and, in this of all weeks, we are a nation that should not be bounced into taking risks simply because they are being taken elsewhere.