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Microsoft calls for regulation of facial recognition technology

A Microsoft building

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Tech giant Microsoft has called for government regulation in the US to limit the use of facial recognition technology.

In a blog post, Microsoft President Brad Smith announced that the usage and deployment of facial recognition technology needed regulation by a bipartisan, expert-led Congressional committee.

Microsoft argued that regulation is necessary because it will lay the foundations for not just tech companies but also what the US government can and can’t do with the technology. Regulation would help create safeguards for citizens against constant surveillance that the technology could catalyze. Microsoft said that the “only effective way” to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself.

Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge. Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech. Imagine the stores of a shopping mall using facial recognition to share information with each other about each shelf that you browse and product you buy, without asking you first.
Brad Smith, Microsoft president

Smith also cites in his call for regulation the technology’s imperfection and an unavoidable rate of error “even when they operate in an unbiased way”. A recent study from earlier this year showed that facial recognition systems from Microsoft and IBM were less accurate for women and people of colour, prompting the company to overhaul its facial recognition systems. In fact, the research was led by teams from Microsoft and MIT. According to Smith, government oversight becomes even more warranted provided the “relative immaturity of the technology”.

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No one benefits from the deployment of immature facial recognition technology that has greater error rates for women and people of color.
Brad Smith

Microsoft recently went on the defensive when it faced public ire against its contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Civil liberties unions suggested that company was providing facial recognition to the immigration authorities, indirectly assisting the separation of families at the border. Smith, however, wrote that after a review of the contract, Microsoft was not providing facial recognition, but only providing email, calendar, messaging and electronic storage services.

In May, US civil liberties groups had called on Amazon to stop offering its facial recognition service (called Rekognition) to governments, warning that the software could be used to unfairly target immigrants and people of colour, along with its potential for mass surveillance. Amazon shareholders and workers had also joined the call against Rekognition at the time.

Facial recognition in India

In India, 3,000 missing children were reunited with their families by the Delhi police using facial recognition technology. The Delhi Police used facial recognition software on 45,000 children living in different children’s homes. Close of 3,000 of those children were identified as missing when it was run through the database of missing children. Soon after, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) encouraged the use of such technology. “If such a type of software helps trace missing children and reunite them with their families, nothing can be better than this,” an NCPCR member told NDTV.

Facial recognition technology has also been deployed for Aadhaar Authentication. The UIDAI introduced the feature in January and has scheduled it for rollout (after a deferral from the beginning of July) in August. UIDAI earlier announced that facial recognition will be used in “Fusion mode” i.e. alongside other biometric information to address failures in authentication with fingerprints and iris scans. Facial authentication poses security and privacy concerns, and possibly expands the scope for surveillance of Aadhaar holders. Read more here.

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