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US police took a photo of Woody Harrelson to catch a thief like him. And it worked.

The face of the offender could not be seen on video surveillance cameras. Then the staff found a quality photo of the actor on the Internet.


Left – a beer thief, right – Woody Harrelson. Photo from the report / AP

NYPD used a photo of a Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson (“The Real Detective”, “Welcome to Zombieland”) to catch the thief who stole a beer. Employees uploaded a picture of the actor into the facial recognition system, because they thought he looked like a suspect. This happened in 2017, but became known only in May 2019, thanks to a report from Georgetown University (Washington).

The report states that the photo of the suspect in the theft was of too poor quality and with obvious artifacts in the image. Because of this, the facial recognition system could not find the culprit in the database. The police downloaded the pictures of Harrelson in good quality, found a suitable person for the description and arrested him.

According to the researchers, police officers from the New York Department used innocent people several times to catch the criminals. They also repeatedly edited images from surveillance cameras so that the facial recognition system could recognize a person in them from the database. For example, a photo of a player in the New York Knicks basketball club was uploaded to the system in order to catch a suspect in the theft of Brooklyn.

As noted by the authors of the report, only one of the 20 cases of facial recognition finds the right person. In just the past five years, this technology has been used in investigations about three thousand times. Researchers believe that due to the negligence of the police, many innocent citizens are at risk of arrest or false accusations.

It’s one thing when a company uses a face recognition system to help people find a similar celebrity for entertainment purposes. It is quite different when the same methods are used to search for crime suspects who are deprived of their liberty on the basis of coincidence.
Claire GarveyGeorgetown University researcher

The police said they were working with face recognition “responsibly”, and that technology was only part of the search and trapping procedure. The representative of the department noted that no one was arrested on the basis of mere coincidence in appearance, and an additional investigation was always carried out.

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