Microsoft refused to sell facial recognition tech to law enforcement

The potential for abuse of facial recognition is too high.
The potential for abuse of facial recognition is too high.

Image: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

The company leading the charge on protecting civil rights from technological abuse is… Microsoft?!

Microsoft President Brad Smith delivered some surprisingly principled news about his company while speaking at Stanford University on Tuesday. Recently, Smith said that Microsoft declined to sell its facial recognition technology to both a California law enforcement agency and an unnamed capital city because of human rights concerns, according to Reuters

That’s in contrast to Amazon, which defends its contracts with law enforcement agencies that use its Rekognition software, and has sought to discredit an ACLU study that showed racial bias in Rekognition. The ACLU study and others have found that facial recognition AI is less accurate at identifying women and minorities than white men. Because of this bias, Smith said that use by law enforcement could disproportionately harm these groups. 

“Anytime they pulled anyone over, they wanted to run a face scan,” Smith said. “We said this technology is not your answer.”

“Anytime they pulled anyone over, they wanted to run a face scan. We said this technology is not your answer.”

That is, the potential for misidentifying someone at a simple traffic stop as a potential suspect was too great for Microsoft to sell the agency the technology. Smith also said that it denied the capital city in the unnamed country the technology because the blanket surveillance it wanted to implement would impede freedom of assembly.

However, Microsoft has sold the technology to a U.S. prison. Smith said that the limited scope of use would assuage these concerns, and had the potential to improve safety inside the prison.

Microsoft faced protests from employees over a contract with the U.S. military to develop AR HoloLens technology, specifically for “increased lethality.” CEO Satya Nadella rebuffed their push to halt the contract, arguing that it was the company’s duty to support the military.

Google and Amazon also faced employee protests (over a censored Chinese search engine and facial recognition tech, respectively), and both have dismissed them. 

As an establishment tech company without any sort of “Don’t Be Evil” legacy, Microsoft’s facial recognition move might come as a surprise. Smith said that the company did not want to partake in a “race to the bottom,” where developing the best facial recognition AI means enabling blanket surveillance to amass biometric data. Speaking with Smith, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged other tech companies to follow suit.

“Please embody the human rights approach when you are developing technology,” Bachelet said.

It’s depressing that denying government agencies use of a technology because it might infringe on civil rights is the (low) bar for praise in Silicon Valley. Still, Microsoft’s stance on this issue might cause others to follow suit. Papa Gates would be proud.

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