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Under Pressure, Microsoft Steps Further From Facial Recognition for Police

Microsoft President Brad Smith said Thursday that the artificial intelligence platform powerhouse won't be selling facial recognition technology to U.S. police departments until there is a national law in place that is "grounded in human rights."

Smith's statement comes after IBM and Amazon both took similar positions in the wake of worldwide protests against police brutality and racism in policing sparked by the death of George Floyd. Those moves by Microsoft's AI peers led critics to call on Microsoft this week to take public steps, as well.

Speaking in a live interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on Thursday, Smith emphasized that Microsoft already was not selling facial recognition technology to police, but suggested the company would also use its influence to push for Congressional legislation.

"We've decided that we will not sell face 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."

In a letter to Congress Monday, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna said IBM was getting out of the business of general purpose facial recognition or analysis software.

"IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software. 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. We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies," Krishna wrote.

In a statement on Wednesday, Amazon declared a one-year moratorium on police use of its Rekognition platform for facial recognition. "We've advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge. We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested," the Amazon statement read.

A day after calling on Microsoft to speak out, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Policy Analyst Matthew Guariglia, updated his post to call Microsoft's Thursday announcement a good step. "But," he continued, Microsoft must permanently end its sale of this dangerous technology to police departments."

Here's a longer transcript of Smith's comments to the Washington Post:

We have been focused on this issue for two years and we have been taking a principled stand and advocating not only for ourselves but for the tech sector and under the law a principled stand for the country and for the world.

As a result of the principles that we put in place, 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 face 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.

We'll also put in place some additional review factors so that we're looking at other potential uses of this technology that go even beyond what we already have for other potential scenarios.

The number one point that I would really underscore is this. We need to use this moment to pursue a strong national law to govern facial recognition that is grounded in the protection of human rights.

I think it is important to see what IBM has done. I think it is important to recognize what Amazon has done. It is obviously similar to what we are doing. But 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. That is the only way that we will guarantee that we will protect the lives of people."

Posted by Scott Bekker on June 11, 2020 at 5:03 PM


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