Microsoft: Here's why we need AI facial-recognition laws right now

Microsoft wants new laws to put some constraints on the use and development of facial recognition.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Microsoft president Brad Smith has called on governments around the world to immediately start work on adopting laws to regulate facial-recognition technology.

It's not often that companies that stand to gain from a technology call for new laws that might constrain them. But Smith is worried enough about the spread of surveillance systems with powerful facial recognition that he's calling for lawmakers to act now.

Tech companies are faced with a "commercial race to the bottom", which should have a "floor of responsibility" that allows competition but outlaws the use of facial recognition in ways that harm democratic freedom or enable discrimination.

The call to action comes as China increasingly adopts facial recognition to monitor public spaces. Analysts estimate China's 200 million surveillance cameras will grow to 300 million in the next two years as tech companies beef up surveillance offerings.

Privacy rights advocates are also worried about plans by the US Secret Service to trial facial-recognition surveillance around the White House, which will help it track people of interest.

ACLU noted this week "it crosses an important line by opening the door to the mass, suspicionless scrutiny of Americans on public sidewalks".

Microsoft's Smith first outlined how government should regulate facial recognition after being criticized for its work with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

It was recently discovered that Amazon pitched its Rekognition software to ICE, which would give a serious boost to its abilities to detect undocumented immigrants at places like medical centers.

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Smith is concerned that unchecked facial recognition will increase the risk of biased decisions and outcomes, and may invade people's privacy, while its use for mass surveillance could harm democratic freedoms.

He argues that facial-recognition laws should require tech companies to provide transparent documentation that explains the capabilities and limitations of their facial-recognition tech.

The laws should also require providers of facial-recognition services to undergo third-party testing to check for accuracy and unfair bias.

"While we're hopeful that market forces may eventually solve issues relating to bias and discrimination, we've witnessed an increasing risk of facial-recognition services being used in ways that may adversely affect consumers and citizens -- today," writes Smith.

The legislation should also force organizations that use facial recognition to review its impact and ensure that using the technology isn't an escape route for complying with anti-discrimination laws.

Other areas that should be covered include clearly notifying consumers where facial recognition is in use, and require consumers to give consent to the use of facial recognition when entering premises.

Microsoft also wants constraints on law enforcement use of facial recognition when monitoring people of interest in public places.

Smith argues this tactic should only be allowed with a court order, or in emergency, such as the risk of death or serious injury to a person.


Microsoft thinks unchecked facial recognition could lead to biased decisions, lost privacy, and harm to democratic freedoms.

Image: Microsoft

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