Teenager Osmane Bah says New York City police dragged him out of bed at 4 a.m. last fall to arrest him for serial shoplifting, when the only “crime” was Apple Inc.’s misuse of facial recognition software.
A lawsuit filed by Bah in a New York federal court claims Apple’s security vendor, using security camera video, used facial recognition software to link him to a series of shoplifting crimes in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and New Jersey. When Bah was arrested on Nov. 29, police quickly realized he looked nothing like the photo included with the arrest warrant and dropped the charges, the lawsuit says.
Still, the nightmare of facing multiple felony charges in multiple states traumatized the student during his first year of college.
Apple said it would not comment on the lawsuit but a representative of the company says, “We don’t use facial recognition in our stores.”
Bah’s lawsuit claims that an imposter used his temporary learner’s permit — which he had lost — as identification during an incident at an Apple store in Connecticut. The photo-less temp permit was marked clearly “not meant for identification purposes,” and the height of the suspect bears little resemblance to Bah’s height, but Apple still linked video of the suspect to Bah’s name, the lawsuit claims.
The imposter later stole $1,200 worth of Apple pens from a Boston store, and the association meant Apple’s facial recognition software tagged Bah as the suspect, the lawsuit says.
Bah first learned about the incident when he received a summons at his New York home to appear in a Massachusetts court for the crime, allegedly committed on May 31, 2018. Bah says he had never been to Boston, and on that day, he was attending his senior prom. At the time, Bah’s lawyer asked for a copy of the surveillance video from the Connecticut store, but was told it no longer existed. The lawsuit also contends that video was later shared with the district attorney’s office in Boston, and accuses Apple of withholding that potentially exculpatory evidence.
“As a result of failure on the part of the defendant to properly identify the perpetrator of crimes enacted against it, plaintiff has found himself falsely accused of felonies taking place in multiple states,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit hints at the potential danger of relying purely on software to make arrests. It also offers a glimpse into the murky world of retail loss prevention techniques. Private companies sometimes maintain databases of criminal allegations that consumers have little or no right to challenge.
“When a name is mismatched to a particular face, the security benefits of the Face ID software become a criminal’s weapon,” the lawsuit says. “Defendant’s use of facial recognition software in its stores to track individuals suspected of theft is the type of Orwellian surveillance that consumers fear, particularly as it can be assumed that the majority of consumers are not aware that their faces are secretly being analyzed at defendant’s stores.”
All charges — except the New Jersey case — against Bah have been dropped, according to the lawsuit. Still, the teenager experienced dramatic stress as a result of the false arrest and accusations. The lawsuit seeks $1 billion in damages.
“His entire life, including his education, has been deeply affected,” the lawsuit says. Bah is now in college. “As a result of being arrested in New York, as well as having to make trips to different states in response to charges filed against him, Mr. Bah’s attendance and grades suffered. Additionally, he suffered constant anxiety over the possibility of being arrested at any time for crimes he did not commit.”