Microsoft CEO calls on Congress to regulate use of facial recognition

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The executive says it’s important that lawmakers create comprehensive standards

In a lengthy blog post published today, Microsoft President Bradford L. Smith wrote of the potential risks that come with facial recognition software, as he urged Congress to consider imposing stricter regulations.

In the post, Smith compared the software to the likes of cars and medicines -- two fields that are highly regulated. He hopes Congress will take a closer look at the software and oversee its use.

“We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology,” Smith wrote. “A world with vigorous regulation of products that are useful but potentially troubling is better than a world devoid of legal standards.”

Asking for federal oversight

In the blog post, Smith suggests that Congress appoint a “bipartisan and expert commission” to study the issue and make recommendations on potential regulations. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has examined facial recognition and recommended that certain companies “provide consumers with an easy-to-use choice not to have their biometric data collected and used for facial recognition.”  

Additionally, Smith lists a number of important questions officials should consider when examining the impact of facial recognition software. These include potential restrictions on law enforcement or national security, standards to prevent racial profiling, requirements that people be notified when the technology is used (particularly in public spaces), and legal protections for those who have been misidentified.

“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 freedom,” Smith wrote. “Facial recognition will require the public and private sectors alike to step up -- and to act.”

Positives and negatives

As presented in Smith’s blog post, facial recognition software offers the public both positives and negatives.

For example, Apple allows iPhone X users to unlock their phones with facial recognition software. Websites like Google and Facebook can identify people in photos. Uber uses Microsoft’s facial recognition technology to confirm drivers’ identities. Microsoft’s Windows Hello allows users to unlock their computers with the software. Offices, airports, and hotels use facial analysis as a form of identification.

However, there are few rules regulating the use of this technology -- either by police or private companies -- and there are some deficiencies.

A February study by an MIT researcher found that facial recognition software created by Microsoft and IBM was accurate when identifying white males than darker-skinned females. Civil liberties experts warn that the technology could enable mass surveillance, hindering individuals’ ability to exist in anonymity.

Last month, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos received a letter from shareholders about the privacy threat of government surveillance from facial recognition technology. Rekognition -- Amazon’s technology -- debuted in 2016 and can detect objects and faces in images and videos. However, law enforcement officials began using the technology in both Orlando, Florida and Washington County, Oregon, which prompted shareholders to ask Amazon to stop selling the software.

“We are concerned the technology would be used to unfairly and disproportionately target people of color, immigrants, and civil society organizations,” the shareholders wrote. “We are concerned sales may be expanded to foreign governments, including authoritarian regimes.”

Responsibility for developing technologies

Smith’s post reflected these concerns as well, as he suggested that governments should examine law enforcement and commercial uses of technology.

“Should law enforcement use of facial recognition be subject to human oversight and controls?” Smith wrote. “Should the law require that companies obtain prior consent before collecting individuals’ images for facial recognition?”

Overall, Smith believes both tech giants -- like Microsoft -- and democratic leaders need to be responsible with constantly developing technologies.

“As we think about the evolving range of technology uses, we think it’s important to acknowledge that the future is not simple,” Smith writes. “A government agency that is doing something objectionable today may do something that is laudable tomorrow. We therefore need a principled approach for facial recognition technology, embodied in law, that outlasts a single administration or the important political issues of a moment.”

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