Microsoft urges government to regulate facial recognition tech

Microsoft logo at Ignite
Microsoft logo at Ignite (Image credit: Windows Central)

In a blog post released today, Microsoft President Brad Smith called on Congress to regulate facial recognition technology, citing its potential for abuse among the private and public sectors alike.

In his post, Smith calls attention to the positive aspects of facial recognition tech, such as cataloging photos and helping to reunite families. But he also cautions that the positives come with potential threats to privacy and human rights. From Smith:

Facial recognition technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression. These issues heighten responsibility for tech companies that create these products. In our view, they also call for thoughtful government regulation and for the development of norms around acceptable uses. 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 freedoms. Facial recognition will require the public and private sectors alike to step up – and to act.

Smith's post comes at a time when facial recognition technology is reaching a level of maturity that has allowed companies and governments to deploy it in a variety of novel use cases. Recently, Amazon has come under fire for selling its facial recognition tech to police departments, raising concerns over its implications for mass surveillance.

Microsoft, which has developed its own facial recognition solutions, hasn't been immune from this criticism. In June, the company was the subject of heated debate over its work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) amid controversy surrounding government separation of migrant children from their parents at the border. Of particular concern was that Microsoft was alleged to be providing facial recognition tech to the agency. However, Microsoft later clarified that its contract was limited to support for legacy systems related to email, calendar, and other management workloads – a point Smith reiterates in his most recent blog post.

We've since confirmed that the contract in question isn't being used for facial recognition at all. Nor has Microsoft worked with the U.S. government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border, a practice to which we've strongly objected. The work under the contract instead is supporting legacy email, calendar, messaging and document management workloads.

Still, Smith says, the public discussion around tech companies' work with government agencies has called attention to the need for careful consideration of how advanced technology such as facial recognition is used. Ultimately, Smith recommends that Congress should form a bipartisan commission to assess issues related to facial recognition and explore potential regulations on its use. Smith also calls on tech companies to step up to the plate with a transparent approach and work to ensure the applications they're developing are used in a principled way.

Dan Thorp-Lancaster

Dan Thorp-Lancaster is the former Editor-in-Chief of Windows Central. He began working with Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore as a news writer in 2014 and is obsessed with tech of all sorts. You can follow Dan on Twitter @DthorpL and Instagram @heyitsdtl