Enterprise software giant joins IBM, Amazon in pushing for more federal regulation in wake of protests
Microsoft is joining rivals IBM and Amazon in making changes to policies around its facial recognition technology in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and demands for police reforms following the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville in recent weeks.
The Lowdown: At a Washington Post Live event Thursday, Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company would not sell its facial recognition technology to police departments until federal regulations are in place.
The Details: The tech and public cloud giant’s decision comes the same week that IBM announced it was exiting the facial recognition market and Amazon said that it was putting a one-year moratorium on police use of its Rekognition technology to give federal lawmakers time to create regulations around the use of facial recognition technology. Critics have said it can be inaccurate and have questioned its use by police and other government bodies.
Microsoft Azure’s Face artificial intelligence (AI) software enables developers to embed facial recognition into their apps and includes such features as face detection, personal identification that matches people against a repository of up to 1 million people, perceived emotion recognition, and the recognition and grouping of similar faces in images.
Smith reportedly said that Microsoft doesn’t currently sell its facial recognition software to any U.S. police departments, but declined to say if it sells it to federal agencies like the FBI or Border Patrol, or police departments outside of the United States.
The Impact: As with IBM and Amazon, Microsoft uses facial recognition technology as part of its larger AI efforts, and it’s unclear – particularly in the case of IBM – whether dropping out of the market or limiting the sale of the software will hamper those efforts.
Background: A study by the Pew Research Center last fall found that 56% of U.S. adults trusted police and other law enforcement agencies to responsibly use facial recognition technology, though that survey was conducted months before the current demonstrations for equality and police reforms.
In January 2019, however, more than 80 civil rights groups, including the ACLU, urged such companies as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google to stop selling their facial recognition technologies to government agencies.
In a blog post in 2018, Microsoft’s Smith called on lawmakers to develop regulations around the use of such technologies, noting their potential for abuse. “Unless we act, we risk waking up five years from now to find that facial recognition services have spread in ways that exacerbate societal issues,” he wrote. “By that time, these challenges will be much more difficult to bottle back up. In particular, we don’t believe that the world will be best served by a commercial race to the bottom, with tech companies forced to choose between social responsibility and market success.”
The Buzz: “We’ve decided we will not sell facial recognition technology to police departments in the United States until we have a national law in place, grounded in human rights, that will govern this technology,” Smith said. “If all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those that are not prepared to take a stand, we won’t necessarily serve the national interest or the lives of the black and African-American people of this nation well. We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone.”
“It should not have taken the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many other Black people, hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, brutal law enforcement attacks against protesters and journalists, and the deployment of military-grade surveillance equipment on protests led by Black activists for these companies to wake up to the everyday realities of police surveillance for Black and Brown communities,” Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said in a statement. “We welcome these companies finally taking action – as little and as late as it may be. We also urge these companies to work to forever shut the door on America’s sordid chapter of over-policing of Black and Brown communities, including the surveillance technologies that disproportionately harm them.”