Blanket ban on government facial recognition ‘cruel’, says Microsoft president

According to Business Insider, Microsoft president Brad Smith has defended use of facial recognition by government agencies, describing calls to limit use of the technology as “cruel”.

Last month, more than 85 human rights groups – including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom of the Press Foundation – joined together to lobby tech giants Amazon, Microsoft and Google to stop selling their facial recognition software to governments. The groups warned that government use of the technology “threatens the safety of community members and will also undermine public trust”.

The use of facial recognition software by law enforcement has caused some controversy during public trials, such as during a rollout during the 2017 Notting Hill Carnival involving erroneous matches and the arrest of an innocent person.

Microsoft offers its own facial recognition toolkit, Face API, which businesses can use to build facial recognition into their own software.

Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer for Microsoft, has said in an interview with Business Insider that the technology can be used for good and a blanket ban on its use by government would be counterproductive to humanitarian goals.

“I do not understand an argument that companies should avoid all licensing to any government agency for any purpose whatsoever,” Smith said. “A sweeping ban on all government use clearly goes too far and risks being cruel in its humanitarian effect.”

Smith said that New Delhi police officers had recently trialled facial recognition technology to identify almost 3,000 missing children in the space of four days, while historians have used the technology to identify unknown Civil War soldiers in photographs taken in the 1860s, and some researchers used it to diagnose a rare genetic disease.

However, Smith acknowledged that the technology could be used to intrude upon privacy via mass surveillance, stating this could “encroach on democratic freedoms”.

Previously, he had argued in a blog post that governments should start considering regulations for facial technology in order to ensure that it is used responsibly, commenting that “unless we act, we risk waking up five years from now to find that facial recognition services have spread in ways that exacerbate societal issues.” He added that industry itself must practice restraint.

Smith echoed the sentiments of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019 encouraged government regulation to prevent unethical use of the technology: “[We] welcome regulation that will help the marketplace not be a race to the bottom,” Nadella commented.

Microsoft will start adopting new principles to manage the complex issues surrounding facial recognition technology beginning in the first quarter of 2019. These will ensure that the uses of the technology are “robust and fair”, Nadella said.

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