Microsoft Gets Backlash on Plans To Limit Facial Recognition Sales to Police

Microsoft's announcement that it will condition the sale of facial recognition technology to U.S. police departments based on human rights got a reaction from the Trump administration.

Brad Smith, Microsoft's president, made the announcement on Thursday. In response, a former Trump administration official suggested cutting off Microsoft's federal contracts. Richard Grenell, former acting director of national intelligence under the Trump administration, wrote in a Thursday Twitter post that "they [Microsoft] should now be banned from federal contracts -- there should be consequences for not selling technology to police departments."

Grenell's post got retweeted by President Trump.

In his Thursday comments, Smith said that there first needs to be a national law in place that is "grounded in human rights" before Microsoft would sell facial recognition technology to U.S. police departments

Smith's statement comes after IBM and Amazon both took similar positions in the wake of worldwide protests against police brutality and racism in policing sparked by the death of George Floyd. Those moves by Microsoft's AI peers led critics to call on Microsoft this week to take public steps, as well.

Speaking in a live interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on Thursday, Smith emphasized that Microsoft already was not selling facial recognition technology to police, but suggested the company would also use its influence to push for Congressional legislation.

"We've decided that we will not sell face 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. "If all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those that are not prepared to take a stand, we won't necessarily serve the national interest or the lives of the black and African American people of this nation well."

In a letter to Congress Monday, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna said IBM was getting out of the business of general purpose facial recognition or analysis software.

"IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software. 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," Krishna wrote.

In a statement on Wednesday, Amazon declared a one-year moratorium on police use of its Rekognition platform for facial recognition. "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," the Amazon statement read.

A day after calling on Microsoft to speak out, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Policy Analyst Matthew Guariglia, updated his post to call Microsoft's Thursday announcement a good step. "But," he continued, Microsoft must permanently end its sale of this dangerous technology to police departments."

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.


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