Microsoft, IBM, Amazon ban facial recognition tech sales to police

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Microsoft has become the latest global giant to ban sales of facial recognition technology to police following police brutality protests after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement agents.

The US-based software giant is following in the footsteps of IBM and Amazon in announcing similar measures.

Microsoft’s president and chief counsel, Brad Smith, announced the decision and called on Congress to regulate the technology during a Washington Post video event yesterday.

“We’ve decided we will not sell facial recognition technology to police departments in the United States until we have a national law in place, grounded in human rights, that will govern this technology,” Smith said.

The latest move comes after CEO Satya Nadella recently sent an e-mail to Microsoft employees saying: “I am heartbroken by the deep pain our communities are feeling. The results of systemic racism, which have impacted opportunities and exacerbated injustices for black and African American communities, urge me to consider my own role as a leader.

“Listening and learning from my black and African American colleagues is helping me develop a better understanding of their experience. And I take accountability for my own continued learning on the realities of privilege, inequity and race and modelling the behaviour I want to see in the world.”

The death of George Floyd, a black man pinned down by a white officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, prompted worldwide protests against racial inequity.

Concerns also arose over whether facial recognition could be used against protesters unfairly.

According to Reuters, research found that face analysis was less accurate for people with darker skin tones, adding to activists’ warnings that false matches could lead to unjust arrests.

IBM CEO Arvind Krishna this week sent a letter to Congress outlining detailed policy proposals to advance racial equality in the US.

He also shared, in the context of addressing responsible use of technology by law enforcement, that IBM has sunset its general purpose facial recognition and analysis software products.

IBM no longer offers general-purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software, Krishna notes.

“IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and principles of trust and transparency.

“We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.”

According to Krishna, artificial intelligence (AI) is a powerful tool that can help law enforcement keep citizens safe.

However, he says, vendors and users of Al systems have a shared responsibility to ensure that Al is tested for bias, particularity when used in law enforcement, and that such bias testing is audited and reported.

“Finally, national policy also should encourage and advance uses of technology that bring greater transparency and accountability to policing, such as body cameras and modern data analytics techniques.”

Meanwhile, in a blog post, Amazon says it is implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of the company’s facial recognition technology.

With Amazon’s facial recognition tech, Rekognition, a user can easily detect when faces appear in images and videos, and get attributes such as gender, age range, eyes open, glasses and facial hair for each.

In video, the user can also measure how these facial attributes change over time, such as constructing a timeline of the emotions expressed by an actor.

“We will continue to allow organisations like Thorn, the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics to use Amazon Rekognition to help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families,” the company says.

“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge. We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

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