Microsoft will not sell its facial recognition technology to police departments in the US until there is a federal law regulating its use, the company’s president, Brad Smith told the Washington Post yesterday. “We do not sell facial recognition technology to police departments in the United States today. But I do think this is a moment in time that really calls on us to listen more, to learn more, and most importantly, to do more. Given that, we’ve decided that we will not sell facial recognition to police departments in the United States until we have a national law in place ground in human rights that will govern this technology,” Smith said. Until then, the company will “put in place some additional review factors so that we’re looking into other potential uses of the technology that goes even beyond what we already have”.
This comes amid protests across the United States against police violence and racial profiling, and a day after Amazon halted police use of its controversial facial recognition system, Rekognition, for a year. It also comes a few days after IBM announced that it will stop offering “general-purpose facial recognition and analysis software”.
However, Microsoft’s decision is more aligned towards Amazon’s stance, wherein, it’s calling for regulation around it, and not entirely ruling out the possibility of selling the technology to the police. Also, both these companies have only committed to halting the sale of the tech to police in the US, suggesting that they can sell it to law enforcement agencies elsewhere. Microsoft has reportedly sold its facial recognition software to at least one American prison and funded an Israel-based facial recognition company. Microsoft’s decision also only talks about halting the sale of facial recognition technology to police departments in the US, and it isn’t clear if this means that the company will keep selling it to other law enforcement agencies. The company did not say if they will halt any development of the tech until there’s a federal regulation.
Even as the company called for a regulation grounded in “human rights” it has lobbied for state facial recognition regulations. In March this year, the state of Washington passed a bill regulating the use of the facial recognition technology, which barred states and local government agencies from using facial recognition systems without a warrant or court order. The Bill’s main sponsor, Senator Joe Nguyen, is an employee at Microsoft, which had unsurprisingly supported the Bill. Rights group American Civil Liberties Union had strongly opposed the Bill, because it had no moratorium period on the technology, and lacked any meaningful accountability or enforcement measures, among other things. “No company backed bill should be taken seriously unless the communities most impacted say it is the right solution,” ACLU said in a statement following Microsoft’s decision to halt the sale of the tech to police in the US.
The protests in the US against racial discrimination have forced companies to take a stand against facial recognition, especially because the technology is known to be biased, particularly against people of colour and other underrepresented communities. Amazon’s facial recognition tool Rekognition, for instance, misidentified 28 members of Congress as criminals. Research, in general, 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.