Microsoft follows IBM and Amazon in barring police from using its facial-recognition technology

June 11, 2020, 6:23 PM UTC

Microsoft has joined Amazon and IBM in barring police from using its facial-recognition technology.

Microsoft president Brad Smith said Thursday during a Washington Post online event that the technology giant “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.”

His remarks come a day after Amazon said it wouldn’t let law enforcement use its facial-recognition technology for a year, and after IBM said earlier this week that it would stop selling the technology for the foreseeable future. 

The decisions come amid protests over racial injustice and police bias following the death of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd after being being pinned down by a white police officer. A.I. researchers and activists have been critical of facial-recognition technology because of its potential to be misused by police departments, some of which have a history of racial discrimination, and its higher inaccuracy when used on women and people of color.

In response to A.I. researchers highlighting those flaws, Microsoft has been trying to improve its technology. But despite the efforts, the facial-recognition technology continues to perform better on white males. 

Smith said that Microsoft has “focused on this issue for two years” and, currently, doesn’t sell facial-recognition services to U.S. police departments. But, he said, recent events call “on us to listen more, to learn more, and most importantly to do more.

“The No. 1 point that I would really underscore is this: We need to use this moment to pursue a strong national law to govern facial recognition that is grounded in the protection of human rights,” Smith said. 

He added: “I think it’s important to see what IBM has done. I think it is important to recognize what Amazon has done. It is obviously similar to what we are doing. But if all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those who are not prepared to take a stance, we won’t necessarily serve the national interests or the lives of the black and African-American people of this nation well.”

Matt Cagle, an American Civil Liberties Union technology and civil liberties attorney, said in a statement about Microsoft’s announcement that “Congress and legislatures nationwide must swiftly stop law enforcement use of face recognition, and companies like Microsoft should work with the civil rights community—not against it—to make that happen.”

Cagle also said Microsoft should halt “its current efforts to advance legislation that would legitimize and expand the police use of facial recognition in multiple states nationwide.” The ACLU has been critical of Microsoft’s support of a proposed facial-recognition bill in California that the group believes will expand unethical surveillance by both police departments and companies.

“We welcome these companies finally taking action—as little and as late as it may be,” Cagle said. “We also urge these companies to work to forever shut the door on America’s sordid chapter of over-policing of black and brown communities, including the surveillance technologies that disproportionately harm them.” 

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