Microsoft reiterates it won't sell facial-recognition tech to police until federal regulation passed

Microsoft President Brad Smith is continuing to champion regulation of facial-recognition tech, saying Microsoft has not sold such technology, to date, to U.S. law enforcement.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: Microsoft

On the heels of Amazon and IBM taking stances about selling facial-recognition technology to law enforcement officials, Microsoft officials are weighing in, again, on the issue. Microsoft President and Chief Counsel Brad Smith said today, June 11, that the company won't sell the technology to police departments until there's a federal law regulating the technology, as noted in a Washington Post report.

In April 2019, Microsoft refused to install facial-recognition tech in California law enforcement officers' cars and body cameras due to human rights concerns. Today, Smith said during a Post Live event that Microsoft had not sold its facial-recognition technology to law enforcement at all. Smith also said today that Microsoft plans to put in place "review factors" that would go beyond what Microsoft already has to determine the use of facial-recognition beyond law enforcement, the Post reported.

Smith's comments today basically echo Microsoft's stance since 2018 when officials advocated publicly for government regulation over facial recognition technology. At that time, Microsoft officials said:

"To protect against the use of facial recognition to encroach on democratic freedoms, legislation should permit law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition to engage in ongoing surveillance of specified individuals in public spaces only when:

  • a court order has been obtained to permit the use of facial recognition services for this monitoring; or
  • where there is an emergency involving imminent danger or risk of death or serious physical injury to a person."

Microsoft has been championing a number of facial-recognition principles for the past couple of years including fairness, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination, notice and consent and lawful surveillance. The surveillance principle stipulated that Microsoft "will not deploy facial-recognition technology in scenarios that we believe will put these freedoms at risk."

I asked officials today if Microsoft has any additional statements regarding its policy of selling facial-recognition tech to law enforcement. A spokesperson provided the following:

"For the past two years we have been focused on developing and implementing strong principles that govern our use of facial recognition, and we've been calling for strong government regulation. We do not sell our facial recognition technology to US police departments today, and until there is a strong national law grounded in human rights, we will not sell this technology to police departments. We're committed to working with others to advocate for the legislation that is needed. We're also taking this opportunity to further strengthen our review processes for any customer seeking to use this technology at scale."

On June 10, Amazon said it will implement a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition technology Rekognition. The day before, IBM said it wouldn't offer general purpose facial recognition technology in fear it could promote racial discrimination and injustice.  

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