Microsoft has become the third major technology company this week to say it will not sell its facial recognition software to the police, following similar steps from Amazon and IBM.
Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief counsel, announced the decision and called on Congress to regulate the technology at a Washington Post video event on Thursday.
“We have decided that we will not sell facial recognition technology to police forces in the United States until a national human rights law has been enacted that will govern this technology,” said Smith.
The trio of tech giants are relinquishing police use of systems that have been criticized for misidentifying dark-skinned people. Persistent protests after George Floyd’s death have drawn attention to racial injustice in the United States and how police are using technology to track people down.
But while all three companies are known for their work in developing artificial intelligence, including facial recognition software, none of them is a major player in selling such technology to the police. Smith said on Thursday that Microsoft is not currently selling its facial recognition software to US police forces. He did not say whether that includes federal law enforcement agencies or police forces outside the US
Several other lesser-known companies dominate the market for government facial recognition contracts in the United States, including Tokyo-based NEC and European companies Idemia and Gemalto.
Microsoft, Amazon and IBM are calling on Congress to establish national rules for the use of facial recognition by the police – something that is now considered part of a police reform package as a result of the protests after Floyd’s death.
“If all responsible companies in the country give up this market to companies that are not willing to take a position, we will not necessarily serve the national interest or life of this country’s black and African American people,” Smith says “We need Congress to act, not just technology companies.”
Microsoft has been warning of the potential dangers of abuse of facial scanning technology to allow for suppressive mass surveillance for two years, but the company has spoken out against outright bans on government use of the technology adopted in San Francisco and other cities. That sparked criticism from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which says Microsoft lobbies for weak regulations that could legitimize and extend the use of facial recognition by the police.
“Congress and national lawmakers should quickly stop the use of facial recognition by law enforcement officers, and companies like Microsoft should work with the civil rights community – not against it – to make that possible,” said Matt Cagle, an attorney with the ACLU in Northern California, in a statement Thursday.
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