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IBM stops selling ‘general purpose’ facial recognition software in response to Black Lives Matter

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In response to the Black Lives Matter movement and to combat racism, IBM has stopped offering “general purpose facial recognition and analysis software”, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna said in a letter sent to the US Congress on June 8. “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency,” Krishna wrote. The letter was addressed to sponsors and co-sponsors of police reform bill that the Democrats proposed on June 8.

IBM also wants to start a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be used by American law enforcement agencies. It also said that all Artificial Intelligence, especially when used in law enforcement, must be tested for bias and thus such bias must be audited and reported. It also said that technology, such as body cameras and modern data analytics techniques, should be used to bring greater transparency to policing. CNBC first reported this development.

In January 2019, IBM had announced that it was sharing a collection of 1 million publicly available faces to “study the fairness and accuracy in facial recognition technology”. It said the data set was “available the global research community upon request”.

“We believe by extracting and releasing these facial coding scheme annotations on a large dataset of 1 million images of faces, we will accelerate the study of diversity and coverage of data for AI facial recognition systems to ensure more fair and accurate AI systems. Today’s release is simply the first step.” — IBM

IBM’s use of the phrase “general purpose” here is ambiguous as it largely creates enterprise products. It is not clear what the company will do with existing data sets used to train facial recognition models. It is also not clear if the company will even continue its research into facial recognition. We also don’t know if this announcement means that the company will no longer offer facial recognition as one of the methods of biometric authentication in its enterprise products such as IBM MaaS360. The impact on IBM’s revenue is not clear since the company does not break down revenue by technology, in its earnings report. It is also not clear what will happen to the employees who worked exclusively on facial recognition technology — will they be laid off or reassigned?

This move comes at a time when Amazon’s facial recognition software, Rekognition, is already licensed by a number of law enforcement agencies in the US, and the company has been considering adding facial recognition technology to its Ring doorbell cameras. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had shown that Amazon’s Rekognition misidentified 28 members of Congress as criminals. Research has shown that facial recognition tools are worse at detecting and identify faces of darker-skinned people, thereby creating ample room for discrimination and persecution.

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And the US is not the only one. Closer home, Vadodara City Police plans to use Clearview AI’s controversial facial recognition software in public places such as railway stations and bus depots, and to track “property offenders”.

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