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Racism and the Abuse of Technology, from Henrietta Lacks to Porcha Woodruff

ColumnAugust 10, 2023
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By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan

Technology is often hailed as an engine of progress, but if unleashed without democratic oversight, it can cause great harm. Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is the latest example. “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority, alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war,” warned over 250 computer scientists in a one-sentence statement issued by the Center for AI Safety. They worry that Artificial Intelligence will outpace human intelligence, then orchestrate our demise as a species.

But for many, the abuses of technology are not some future threat. Take the cases of Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951, and a more recent example, in 2023, of another Black woman, Porcha Woodruff, a young Detroit mother wrongly arrested for armed robbery and carjacking after being misidentified by AI-driven facial recognition software.

“The six police officers came to knock on the door,” Porcha Woodruff said on the Democracy Now! news hour, recounting her arrest with “a warrant for my arrest for carjacking. In the midst of the conversation, I opened up my door a little bit wider so that they could see I was eight months pregnant…I went back and forth with the police officers for a while, trying to convince them, ‘You have the wrong person.’”

Porcha Woodruff was handcuffed in front of her two young, terrified daughters and jailed. The actual perpetrator’s face had been recorded by a camera, and facial recognition software pointed to Porcha. She was the first woman known to have been arrested due to faulty facial recognition software. At least five men have been similarly wrongly arrested. All six are Black. Porcha was held for eleven hours, released on $100,000 bond. She began having contractions in the jail cell. She immediately rushed to the hospital after getting out, where she was treated for dehydration.

“In 2019, the government shared a study showing that African American faces and Asian faces were 10 to 100 times more likely to be misidentified,” Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, explained on Democracy Now! “In many instances, the worst performance is on the faces of Black women. When you look at the data and what we’ve recorded on the performance of facial recognition technologies, it does mean people of color, women of color, Black women, in particular, are at even higher risk of these types of misidentifications.”

Porcha Woodruff is 32 years old. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five, who went to Johns Hopkins, the only hospital in Baltimore that would see Black patients in the early 1950s. “She ended up going under anesthetic to get a biopsy of her cervix,” Rebecca Skloot said on Democracy Now! Skloot is the author of the bestselling biography, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” also made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. “That’s when this doctor just took a little extra piece and put that in a dish and sent it to George Gey, who was the head of tissue culture research and had been trying to grow cells for decades. They had been able to keep cells alive for maybe 24 hours in the past, but hers —not only did they not die, but they began doubling their numbers every 24 hours. So they just grew with this incredible intensity that no one had ever seen before.”

Henrietta Lacks died of cancer not long after, but her cells lived on, becoming a cornerstone of biomedical research. The cells taken from Henrietta Lacks without her permission

have helped cure or treat countless diseases, from polio to HIV to HPV, helped develop vaccines and other medicines, and to map the human genome. Doctors from Johns Hopkins continued to deceive her family members, subjecting them to studies in an attempt to learn why her cells were able to survive.

Johns Hopkins called Henrietta Lacks’ cells “HeLa cells,” claiming they came from a fictitious person, “Helen Lane.”. Many companies profited from her cells. On August 1st, her family settled with one company, Thermo Fisher Scientific.

One of her grandsons, Alfred Lacks Carter, Jr., announced, “Our family member, our loved one, Henrietta Lacks, 103 years old today… it couldn’t have been a more fitting day for her to have justice, for her family to have relief. It was a long fight, over 70 years. And Henrietta Lacks gets her day.”

Hopefully, Porcha Woodruff will get her day, too. She is suing Detroit for wrongful arrest and imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and for its use of the demonstrably racist AI-driven facial recognition software. She could well be the impetus for passage of the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act now before Congress.

From Henrietta Lacks to Porcha Woodruff, it is past time we recognize and reject racist abuses of technology.

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