Microsoft wants facial recognition to be regulated, cites government surveillance

Jack Wilkinson

Facial recognition is becoming more advanced. With improved cameras, better technology, and increased connectivity, facial recognition is taking strides. This advancement makes the technology easier to get ahold of, to deploy, and to use. But it comes with its pros and cons, and Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer, Brad Smith, wants to see some changes.

Smith, in a blog post on Microsoft’s “On the issues” blog, takes a look at the positives and negatives associated with facial recognition and makes a public call for regulation, as well as accepting that technology companies, like Microsoft, have corporate and ethical responsibilities to adhere to.

To start with, Smith points out and delivers examples of a number of positives that the technology can bring, including:

  • Locating a missing child as they walk down the street
  • Helping police identify a terrorist
  • A smartphone and an app telling a blind person who just walked into the meeting room

Some emerging uses are both positive and potentially even profound. Imagine finding a young missing child by recognizing her as she is being walked down the street. Imagine helping the police to identify a terrorist bent on destruction as he walks into the arena where you’re attending a sporting event. Imagine a smartphone camera and app that tells a person who is blind the name of the individual who has just walked into a room to join a meeting.

But, on the flip side, there are some negatives to the technology, mainly from a privacy point-of-view, that directly interlink with protecting human rights. Examples include:

  • Governments recording everywhere you walk
  • A database of people who attended a political rally
  • Stores sharing information about each shelf you look at and the products you buy, without asking

But other potential applications are more sobering. Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge. Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech. Imagine the stores of a shopping mall using facial recognition to share information with each other about each shelf that you browse and product you buy, without asking you first. This has long been the stuff of science fiction and popular movies – like “Minority Report,” “Enemy of the State” and even “1984” – but now it’s on the verge of becoming possible.

Microsoft calls on governments to create a “common regulatory” framework for facial recognition. While admitting that tech companies have a role to play, it requires governments to enact regulations, as not all companies are likely to put in place their own ethics rules, particularly in a competitive environment. Smith says that, as a starting point, governments should look at the following issues:

  • Should law enforcement use of facial recognition be subject to human oversight and controls, including restrictions on the use of unaided facial recognition technology as evidence of an individual’s guilt or innocence of a crime?
  • Similarly, should we ensure there is civilian oversight and accountability for the use of facial recognition as part of governmental national security technology practices?
  • What types of legal measures can prevent use of facial recognition for racial profiling and other violations of rights while still permitting the beneficial uses of the technology?
  • Should use of facial recognition by public authorities or others be subject to minimum performance levels on accuracy?
  • Should the law require that retailers post visible notice of their use of facial recognition technology in public spaces?
  • Should the law require that companies obtain prior consent before collecting individuals’ images for facial recognition? If so, in what situations and places should this apply? And what is the appropriate way to ask for and obtain such consent?
  • Should we ensure that individuals have the right to know what photos have been collected and stored that have been identified with their names and faces?
  • Should we create processes that afford legal rights to individuals who believe they have been misidentified by a facial recognition system?

It’s clear that, with recent events such as the separation of immigrants in the United States, and the outcry from the public, tech companies, and employees of tech companies, that work is needed in the field of facial recognition. Microsoft strongly believes regulation is required to force all companies to work to a level playing field and create a healthier industry.