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Microsoft Prez Calls on Government to Regulate Facial Recognition Technology Following Public Backlash

By NexChange
Capital Markets, FinTech

Microsoft’s president has called on the U.S. government to regulate the use of facial recognition technology, responding to the public backlash over its contract with the government to develop this controversial software.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, sought to balance the benefits and risks of computer-assisted facial recognition in a blog post published on Friday, noting that while the technology can “catalog your photos, help reunite families,” it also “raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression.”

These issues heighten responsibility for tech companies that create these products. In our view, they also call for thoughtful government regulation and for the development of norms around acceptable uses. In a democratic republic, there is no substitute for decision making by our elected representatives regarding the issues that require the balancing of public safety with the essence of our democratic freedoms. Facial recognition will require the public and private sectors alike to step up – and to act.

Smith also acknowledged the controversy over Microsoft’s contract with the U.S. government that blew up after the Trump administration’s recent order separating immigrant children from their parents. A Twitter user pointed to a contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that potentially opened the door for ICE to use Microsoft’s computer-assisted facial recognition.

However, Smith says this isn’t actually the case.

We’ve since confirmed that the contract in question isn’t being used for facial recognition at all. Nor has Microsoft worked with the U.S. government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border, a practice to which we’ve strongly objected. The work under the contract instead is supporting legacy email, calendar, messaging and document management workloads. This type of IT work goes on in every government agency in the United States, and for that matter virtually every government, business and nonprofit institution in the world. Some nonetheless suggested that Microsoft cancel the contract and cease all work with ICE.

While there is mounting pressure on tech companies to take responsibility for managing how facial recognition technology gets deployed, Smith counters that “we believe this is an inadequate substitute for decision making by the public and its representatives in a democratic republic. We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology. As a general principle, it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government.”

Smith laid out a list of questions that governments should consider when regulating facial recognition technology:

  • Should law enforcement use of facial recognition be subject to human oversight and controls, including restrictions on the use of unaided facial recognition technology as evidence of an individual’s guilt or innocence of a crime?
  • Similarly, should we ensure there is civilian oversight and accountability for the use of facial recognition as part of governmental national security technology practices?
  • What types of legal measures can prevent use of facial recognition for racial profiling and other violations of rights while still permitting the beneficial uses of the technology?
  • Should use of facial recognition by public authorities or others be subject to minimum performance levels on accuracy?
  • Should the law require that retailers post visible notice of their use of facial recognition technology in public spaces?
  • Should the law require that companies obtain prior consent before collecting individuals’ images for facial recognition? If so, in what situations and places should this apply? And what is the appropriate way to ask for and obtain such consent?
  • Should we ensure that individuals have the right to know what photos have been collected and stored that have been identified with their names and faces?
  • Should we create processes that afford legal rights to individuals who believe they have been misidentified by a facial recognition system?

As for the tech industry’s responsibility in managing the software, Smith pointed to four main issues: reducing the risk of racial bias in facial recognition technology; “the need to take a principled and transparent approach in the development and application” of the software; taking a measured and prudent approach to deploying the technology; and participating in public policy deliberations about the new software.

Photo: Getty iStock


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