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Attendees walk past signage in the exhibition hall during the Microsoft Inspire partner conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., U.S. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Microsoft Urges Lawmakers to Regulate Face-Recognition Tech

Microsoft Corp., which has come under fire for a U.S. government contract that was said to involve facial recognition software, said it will more carefully consider contracts in this area and urged lawmakers to regulate the use of such artificial intelligence to prevent abuse.

(Bloomberg) -- Microsoft Corp., which has come under fire for a U.S. government contract that was said to involve facial recognition software, said it will more carefully consider contracts in this area and urged lawmakers to regulate the use of such artificial intelligence to prevent abuse.

The company, one of the key makers of software capable of recognizing individual faces, said it will take steps to make those systems less prone to bias; develop new public principles to govern the technology; and will move more deliberately to sell its software and expertise in the area. While Microsoft noted that the tech industry bears responsibility for its products, the company argued that government action is also needed. 

“The only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself,” Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said Friday in a blog post. “And if there are concerns about how a technology will be deployed more broadly across society, the only way to regulate this broad use is for the government to do so. This in fact is what we believe is needed today — a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial recognition technology, informed first by a bipartisan and expert commission.”

Companies like Microsoft, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Inc. have been under fire from civil liberties groups and their own employees for selling AI software, particularly for facial recognition, to the U.S. government and local police. It’s somewhat unusual for tech companies to call for their own products to be more heavily regulated, but Smith and Microsoft AI chief Harry Shum earlier this year authored a treatise saying AI advances would require new laws.

“While we appreciate that some people today are calling for tech companies to make these decisions — and we recognize a clear need for our own exercise of responsibility — we believe this is an inadequate substitute for decision making by the public and its representatives in a democratic republic,” Smith wrote.Facial recognition systems often have serious shortcomings and are particularly poor at recognizing and differentiating among people with darker skin. A February paper from one of Microsoft’s researchers, Timnit Gebru, and Joy Buolamwini of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology Media Lab, showed error rates of as much as 35 percent for systems classifying darker-skinned women. Microsoft’s research arm has since worked to correct the issues identified in its facial-recognition software by the researchers.As technology evolves rapidly, Microsoft has been advocating for new laws that directly consider emerging areas like cloud computing and AI. The company fought the U.S. government over privacy concerns for what Microsoft said was the government’s application of an outdated communications law to cloud computing, then backed compromise legislation that directly addressed data privacy and searches in the era of the cloud.  

The Microsoft view strikes a somewhat different tone than the response of Amazon to calls for it to stop selling its facial recognition software to police departments and other government agencies. In a June blog post replying to concerns raised then, Amazon’s AI general manager, Matt Wood, wrote “There have always been and will always be risks with new technology capabilities. Each organization choosing to employ technology must act responsibly or risk legal penalties and public condemnation. AWS takes its responsibilities seriously. But we believe it is the wrong approach to impose a ban on promising new technologies because they might be used by bad actors for nefarious purposes in the future.”

 Among the issues that government regulation should consider, Smith wrote, is whether police use of facial recognition software needs human oversight and controls and whether retailers must post visible notice if they use such software in public areas. Other areas for consideration include whether companies should be required to obtain consent before collecting a person’s images and what legal rights apply to people who believe they’ve been misidentified by a facial recognition system. The technology's use by law enforcement without rules in place raises concerns about racial disparity and privacy, said Barry Friedman, an NYU law professor who runs The Policing Project, which works to set rules and guidelines for law enforcement.

The Supreme Court ruled police can't have long-term access to cell phone data without a warrant or probable cause, and similar restrictions should be applied to their use of facial recognition technology, he said.

“This technology is just rushing on us really fast,” Friedman said. “If we don't get ahead of it, we won't be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

Microsoft last month briefly removed references on its web site to a contract it had secured with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after online complaints about the software maker selling to an agency involved in controversial immigration practices separating parents and children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. The blog post was later restored.

While Microsoft later said its contract with the immigration enforcement agency was for putting older email and worker collaboration systems in the cloud, the blog post mentioned the possibility of the agency using the company’s facial recognition tools. Hundreds of Microsoft employees signed a petition demanding Microsoft stop selling to the agency.

Amazon has come under fire for selling its Rekognition AI software for this task to local police departments, with the American Civil Liberties Union demanding the company stop letting governments use the technology.

At Google, employees revolted over the company’s work on Project Maven, a Defense Department initiative to apply AI tools to drone footage. Last month Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai  released a set of principles that pledged not to use its powerful artificial intelligence for weapons, illegal surveillance and technologies that cause “overall harm.” The company said it will still work with the military.Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the ACLU, agreed with Microsoft that lawmakers need to get involved in analyzing the use of facial-recognition software.“Congress should take immediate action to enact a moratorium on law enforcement use of this technology until its grave threats to communities can be fully debated,” she said. “However, in the meantime, companies like Microsoft, Amazon and others should be heeding the calls from the public, employees, and shareholders to stop selling face-surveillance technology to law enforcement."

Microsoft has created an AI ethics board to examine these kinds of issues and has said that it turned down some contracts to sell some software to certain customers, but has declined to provide details. The new AI board has urged a slower, more deliberate approach to selling the software, Smith said. 


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