Macy's and Sunglass Hut sued for $10M over face-recog arrest and 'sexual assault'

Man, 61, cuffed and allegedly attacked after 'faulty' AI software blundered

A 61-year-old man is suing US retail giant Macy's and the parent biz of chain store Sunglass Hut for $10 million, claiming he was mistakenly arrested in a robbery case after an inaccurate facial-recognition identification match, and subsequently sexually assaulted in jail.

In 2022, two men robbed a Sunglass Hut kiosk inside a Macy's in Houston, Texas, and stole sunglasses and thousands of dollars in cash at gunpoint. While Houston cops investigated the crime, the head of loss prevention for EssilorLuxottica – the multinational that owns Sunglass Hut – reportedly identified Harvey Eugene Murphy Jr as one of the suspects, based on the conclusions of some facial-recognition software, and accused him of carrying out two other robberies.

The AI software analyzed camera footage from the store, and wrongly matched Murphy to one of the suspects using "old" photos of him, according to his lawyers, who claimed the technology involved was "error prone and faulty."

As well as the AI matching, one of the store's workers also picked out Murphy as one of the robbers from a set of photographs presented by investigators. He was arrested when he tried to renew his driver's license at a DMV and thrown in jail. While in custody he was "beaten, forced on the ground, and brutally gang raped," by three men, according to court documents [PDF] filed in a district court in Harris County, Texas.

Murphy told his court-appointed defense lawyer he couldn't have committed the crime since he was in California at the time of the robbery. His alibi was confirmed, all criminal charges were dropped, and he was released after a few hours behind bars.

"Murphy's story is tragic," his subsequent lawsuit, brought this month, claimed. "But worse than that, it is scary for everyone in this country. Any one of us could be improperly charged with a crime and jailed based solely on error-prone facial recognition software. The companies that use this kind of software know it has a high rate of false positives, but they still use it to positively identify alleged criminals.

"Imagine going to the DMV to get your license renewed and being told you are under arrest for multiple felonies. Even though you are completely innocent, you will automatically be jailed until you can prove your innocence. During this time, you will be subjected to the known dangers of jail cells overcrowded with violent and dangerous criminals. All of this because a company told the police, based on artificial intelligence, that you were the one who committed terrible crimes."

Murphy has accused Macy's and EssilorLuxottica of malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, and gross negligence. He is seeking $10 million in damages. The Register has asked both orgs for comment. 

Caitlin Seeley George, campaigns and managing director at Fight for the Future, told The Register Macy's admitted it was using facial recognition software in the case. George said that in her opinion the technology shouldn't be used at all.

"Private companies that use facial recognition tech are seriously endangering customers, and this case further exemplifies what we already know: there is no way to safely use facial recognition – it must be banned," she declared.

"And whether it's companies or cops, the end result is that facial recognition is used to police our actions, our ability to move freely and safely throughout society, and to exercise our basic rights," she added. ®

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