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Microsoft to pause selling facial recognition software to police

Company president Brad Smith said the company will not sell this technology to departments until there is “a national law in place that will govern this technology”


Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WASHINGTON — Microsoft has become the third big tech company this week to say it won’t sell its facial recognition software to police, following similar moves by Amazon and IBM.

Microsoft’s president and chief counsel, Brad Smith, announced the decision and called on Congress to regulate the technology during a Washington Post video event on Thursday.

“We’ve decided 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,” Smith said.

The trio of tech giants is stepping back from law-enforcement use of systems that have faced criticism for incorrectly identifying people with darker skin. Ongoing protests following the death of George Floyd have focused attention on racial injustice in the U.S. and how police use technology to track people.

But while all three companies are known for their work in developing artificial intelligence, including face recognition software, none is a major player in selling such technology to police. Smith said Thursday that Microsoft currently doesn’t sell its face recognition software to any U.S. police departments. He didn’t say if that includes federal law enforcement agencies or police forces outside the U.S.

Several other companies that are less well known dominate the market for government facial recognition contracts in the U.S., including Tokyo-based NEC and the European companies Idemia and Gemalto.

Microsoft, Amazon and IBM are calling on Congress to set national rules over how police use facial recognition — something that’s now being considered as part of a police reform package sparked by the protests following Floyd’s death.

“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,” Smith said. “We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone.”

Microsoft has spent two years warning of the potential dangers of face-scanning technology being abused to enable oppressive mass surveillance, but the company has opposed outright bans on government use of the technology passed in San Francisco and other cities. That’s led to criticism from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which says Microsoft is lobbying for weak regulations that could end up legitimizing and expanding police use of facial recognition.

“Congress and legislatures nationwide must swiftly stop law enforcement use of face recognition, and companies like Microsoft should work with the civil rights community — not against it — to make that happen,” said Matt Cagle, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a statement Thursday.

Smith also said the company will review other uses of facial recognition software, which he didn’t specify. Microsoft has an internal committee that looks at when it should sell the software to particular customers. The group’s criteria aren’t public, and Microsoft has declined to provide them, apart from a few examples of cases where it opted to turn down contracts.

Microsoft’s announcement follows IBM Corp.‘s decision Monday to exit the facial recognition market, and Amazon’s move Wednesday to put in place a one-year pause on sales to police departments. The moves come in the midst of protests about law enforcement brutality and bias after a police officer killed an unarmed Black man, George Floyd. Facial recognition technology has been shown in experiments to sometimes have difficulty identifying people with darker skin.

Smith praised IBM and Amazon’s actions while renewing his call for national legislation to regulate the technology. He has been urging lawmakers to take a stand on facial recognition software for two years, but a bill in Microsoft’s home state of Washington that borrowed heavily from his proposals has failed twice. Meanwhile, activists have been asking for laws that go further, including outright bans on the technology.

“If all of the responsible companies in this country cede this market to those that are not prepared to make a stand, we won’t necessarily serve the national interest or the lives of the Black and African American people of this national well,” he said. “We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone.”