Facial recognition technology has been fodder for crummy science fiction movies and techno-thriller novels for decades, but in the last couple years it has been woven into many facets of real life. Schools, shopping malls, concert venues, and law enforcement agencies all use facial recognition systems for various applications, some of which have become quite controversial. One of the world’s largest tech companies is now asking the federal government to step in and provide a regulatory framework for law enforcement and others who use the technology.
Microsoft President Brad Smith, whose company provides facial recognition technology to private companies and government agencies, said in a blog post that he has come to the conclusion that Congress needs to step in and regulate the ways in which organizations deploy the technology and use the data they collect. Smith said the technology has advanced to a point that it’s accurate enough for many applications, but the privacy and security thinking around it hasn’t kept pace.
“We believe Congress should create a bipartisan expert commission to assess the best way to regulate the use of facial recognition technology in the United States. This should build on recent work by academics and in the public and private sectors to assess these issues and to develop clearer ethical principles for this technology. The purpose of such a commission should include advice to Congress on what types of new laws and regulations are needed, as well as stronger practices to ensure proper congressional oversight of this technology across the executive branch,” Smith wrote.
Silicon Valley has had a complicated relationship with Congress and federal regulators for a long time, and large technology companies aren’t usually eager for more oversight or regulation of their businesses. But the use of facial recognition at the U.S. border and questions about biases and inaccuracies in the technology have contributed to a change in thinking in some parts of the tech industry. Last month, a group of Amazon employees sent a letter to Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder and CEO, asking him to stop selling Amazon’s facial recognition software to government and law enforcement agencies. Smith said the current political and social climate make regulation of this technology even more important, for both consumers and the organizations that deploy it.
“It seems especially important to pursue thoughtful government regulation of facial recognition technology, given its broad societal ramifications and potential for abuse. Without a thoughtful approach, public authorities may rely on flawed or biased technological approaches to decide who to track, investigate or even arrest for a crime,” Smith said.
“Governments may monitor the exercise of political and other public activities in ways that conflict with longstanding expectations in democratic societies, chilling citizens’ willingness to turn out for political events and undermining our core freedoms of assembly and expression. Similarly, companies may use facial recognition to make decisions without human intervention that affect our eligibility for credit, jobs or purchases. All these scenarios raise important questions of privacy, free speech, freedom of association and even life and liberty.”
“It seems especially important to pursue thoughtful government regulation of facial recognition technology, given its broad societal ramifications and potential for abuse."
The recent spread of facial recognition technology has raised a number of privacy and security concerns. Pervasive surveillance in public spaces is a reality in many parts of the U.S., and privacy advocates worry that combining video surveillance with facial recognition gives private companies and law enforcement the ability to track individuals through their daily lives without their knowledge.
“Congress should take immediate action to put the brakes on this technology with a moratorium on its use by government, given that it has not been fully debated and its use has never been explicitly authorized. And companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and others should be heeding the calls from the public, employees, and shareholders to stop selling face surveillance technology to governments,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
In his post, Microsoft’s Smith laid out a number of questions that a potential congressional committee should consider, including whether law enforcement use of facial recognition should require human oversight, what laws can prevent the use of the technology for racial profiling, and whether the use of facial recognition be subject to minimum levels of accuracy.