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Microsoft Joins Rising Chorus Against Facial Recognition

Following other tech companies, the software giant’s president, Brad Smith, said Microsoft doesn’t sell facial recognition to police departments and won’t do so until there are federal laws to prevent its misuse.

The tech industry is hitting the brakes on facial recognition software.

On June 11, Microsoft President Brad Smith joined a growing list of tech companies coming out against facial recognition in law enforcement.

Axon, the nation’s largest retailer of police body cameras, came out against facial recognition last year, citing ethical concerns about surveillance, accuracy and algorithms built on racially biased statistics. In January, CEO Sundar Pichai of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, supported the European Union’s temporary ban on facial recognition. On Monday, IBM sent a letter to Congress vowing not to sell facial recognition or analysis software, and offering advice on new policies. On Wednesday, Amazon reversed its prior stance on the issue and halted police use of its facial recognition technology for a year, awaiting federal legislation.

Now Microsoft is on board as well.

In a video interview with The Washington Post, Smith said that Microsoft doesn’t sell facial recognition technology to police departments today, but he went further to say the company won’t do so until there’s federal regulation.

“We’ve decided that we will not sell facial 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,” he said. “We’ll also put in place some additional review factors, so that we’re looking at other potential uses of this technology that go beyond what we already have, for other potential scenarios.”

It’s unclear what potential scenarios Smith was referring to, but Microsoft taking a broad stance against facial recognition is a change for the company. Although Microsoft has turned down police department requests for facial recognition technology in the past and advocated for federal regulation, Smith broke with Alphabet’s CEO in January regarding the EU’s call for a temporary ban. As recently as last month, Microsoft supported AB 2261 in California, a regulatory measure that left room for businesses or agencies to deny services based on a scan of someone’s face.

The American Civil Liberties Union took issue with this, citing a government study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that found facial recognition is up to 100 times more likely to misidentify African-American and Asian people than white people.

In his comments today, though, Smith suggested the growing national attention on racism offers a chance to get an important thing right: new federal regulation of facial recognition software, rooted in a concern for human rights, which companies like his have been calling for. He made the point that without legislation, the market for facial recognition technology will belong to companies that don’t have such concerns.

“If all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those not prepared to take a stand, we won’t necessarily serve the national interest, or the lives of black and African American people of this nation well,” Smith said. “We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone. That is the only way that we will guarantee that we’ll protect the lives of people.”

So with Axon, Google, IBM, Amazon and now Microsoft imposing a moratorium on facial recognition, who’s still selling it to law enforcement? It would seem not many, although the CEO of police tech vendor Wolfcom in Pasadena, Calif., doubled down on the idea when asked about it in March. Clearview AI also makes the technology explicitly for law enforcement.