Microsoft appeals to the U.S. government to regulate facial recognition tech

Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith has, in an extensive blog post, made the case for facial recognition technology to be regulated by the government. Starting with the fundamentals, Smith asserts the need to protect the rights of consumers of technology worldwide.

This appeal, according to Smith, comes from the recent, major shifts in this facet of the industry. Given the sudden, sharp uptick in the speed and accuracy of modern facial recognition tech, partly because of the cloud and how said data is sent from live cameras to servers instantaneously and ubiquitously, it's become clear just how much advanced tech like this has now become ingrained in daily lives.

Smith mentions the positive, benign uses of facial recognition thus far, such as with Facebook's and Microsoft's own efforts in the photo tagging and compiling components of its services, and speaks of how, for instance, it has been used to identify missing persons by scanning passersby on a street, which brings him to the potential for misuse of this technology:

"Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge. Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech. Imagine the stores of a shopping mall using facial recognition to share information with each other about each shelf that you browse and product you buy, without asking you first."

Smith goes on to express concerns regarding the overall immaturity of the platform, placing special focus on its inaccuracy bias against people of color, and citing studies that discovered how this fallacy might result in sinister outcomes in scenarios that depend on it. Furthermore, Smith strongly denies Microsoft's involvement with the separation of immigrant parents and their children carried out at the U.S.-Mexico border by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and goes on to state that these accusations have kicked up quite the hornet's nest:

"The ensuing discussion has illuminated broader questions that are rippling across the tech sector. These questions are not unique to Microsoft. They surfaced earlier this year at Google and other tech companies. In recent weeks, a group of Amazon employees has objected to its contract with ICE, while reiterating concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about law enforcement use of facial recognition technology. And Salesforce employees have raised the same issues related to immigration authorities and these agencies’ use of their products. Demands increasingly are surfacing for tech companies to limit the way government agencies use facial recognition and other technology."

The post also states that while it is appreciable that there is a large number of people who trust tech companies to do the right thing with regards to this technology, it has evolved and proliferated enough to be worthy of public debate, and by extension, due democratic process.

Smith highlights several scenarios in which government regulation might be especially crucial:

" -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?

This list, which is by no means exhaustive, illustrates the breadth and importance of the issues involved."

The post stresses the need for Silicon Valley to distribute technology such as this with prejudice, given its present multitude of shortcomings such as the aforementioned accuracy bias, and touts Microsoft's efforts to mitigate such concerns by briefly talking about its partnerships with academic communities dedicated to studying the effects of facial recognition in order to up the ante on this technology's reliability.

Smith stresses the necessity for transparency throughout this process and the need to stick to principles that establish trust with consumers. Furthermore, he doubles down on the company's commitment to work with guidelines set in the UN's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and concludes the post by assuring readers that it will participate in public policy deliberations pertinent to facial recognition until this technology is seen by people in the same light as the company sees it presently.

Source: Microsoft Blog | Image: GovTechWorks

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