Microsoft Calls On Congress to Regulate Facial Recognition

Microsoft is calling for regulation of facial recognition technology, with president Bradford Smith writing a blog post detailing its potential misuse, and comparing it to medicine and cars, both of which are highly regulated. He urged Congress to act, saying that, “government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology,” and that, “a world with vigorous regulation of products that are useful but potentially troubling is better than a world devoid of legal standards.”

The New York Times reports that, “Smith’s unusual entreaty illustrates how powerful technologies involving artificial intelligence — including facial recognition — have set off a contentious battle among tech executives.”

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Silicon Valley is also facing intense scrutiny for misuse of personal data and spreading false information during the 2016 election, so Smith’s plea is part of a general growing openness of tech companies to this kind of regulation for “practices like political advertising.” NYT also notes that, “with many of its rivals under fire, Microsoft has aggressively tried to position itself as the moral compass of the industry,” and thus is “taking the lead in calling for some regulatory restraint” of facial recognition.

Facial recognition “can be used to identify people in photos or video feeds without their knowledge or permission,” which its advocates see as “a potentially important tool for identifying criminals,” even as “civil liberties experts have warned that the technology could enable mass surveillance, hindering people’s ability to freely attend political protests or go about their day-to-day lives in anonymity.”

Microsoft revealed that it has already turned down requests from “certain customers” to use facial recognition when the company “concluded that there are greater human rights risks,” adding that it was committed to “establishing a transparent set of principles” for the technology.

Several privacy groups filed a complaint in April with the Federal Trade Commission, “saying that Facebook had turned on new face-matching services without obtaining appropriate permission of users,” a charge that Facebook denies. The next month, “the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups asked Amazon to stop selling its face-matching service, Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies,” a service that NYT used to “help identify attendees at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.”

In Europe, the GDPR already “generally prohibits companies from collecting the biometric data needed for facial recognition without first obtaining users’ specific consent,” and, in the U.S., Illinois has similar restrictions. Microsoft’s Smith suggests that, “Congress should appoint a commission to study the issue and make recommendations on potential regulations.”

In a 2012 report, the FTC already recommended that certain companies “provide consumers with an easy-to-use choice not to have their biometric data collected and used for facial recognition,” but Congress didn’t follow up on those recommendations.