4 min read

Last Week, Microsoft President- Brad Smith, published a blog post, requesting governments to regulate the rapid evolution of Facial Recognition technology. Along with all the merits that this technology offers, Brad states that the tech has the potential to be abused. He urges that 2019 be the year that governments focus on regulating the tech, because “Unless we act, we risk waking up five years from now to find that facial recognition services have spread in ways that exacerbate societal issues. By that time, these challenges will be much more difficult to bottle back up.

The post highlights how Microsoft and tech companies will need to start creating safeguards to address facial recognition technology and its potential chances of abuse. Along with the support of governments and the tech sector, Microsoft believes that facial recognition technology can create positive societal benefits.

Considering that major tech giants like Amazon and Google have been facing backlash on providing their facial recognition technology to the Government, citizens need assurance that this technology will only have positive societal impacts.

Smith lists 3 important problems in this area that need to be addressed with government assistance:

  1. Certain uses of facial recognition technology increase the risk of decisions and, more generally, outcomes that are biased and, in some cases, in violation of laws prohibiting discrimination.
  2. The widespread use of this technology can lead to new intrusions into people’s privacy.
  3. The use of facial recognition technology by a government for mass surveillance can encroach on democratic freedoms.

How can legislation help?

#1 Issue: address bias and discrimination

Microsoft claims that they and other tech companies have been actively working to identify and reduce these errors while improving the accuracy and quality of facial recognition tools and services. Laws are needed in this area as “market forces will work well only if potential customers are well-informed and able to test facial recognition technology for accuracy and risks of unfair bias, including biases that arise in the context of specific applications and environments.

They suggest that:

  1. The legislation should mandate tech companies (that offer facial recognition services) to provide easy to understand documentation, explaining the capabilities and limitations of the technology.
  2. The providers of commercial facial recognition services should enable third parties engaged in independent testing to conduct and publish reasonable tests of their facial recognition services for accuracy and unfair bias.
  3. Entities that deploy facial recognition should undertake a meaningful human review of facial recognition results, prior to making final decisions for what the law deems to be “consequential use cases” that affect consumers. It is also important for the entities that deploy facial recognition services to recognize that they are not absolved of their obligation to comply with laws prohibiting discrimination against individual consumers or groups of consumers.

#2 Issue: Intrusion into people’s privacy

Microsoft believes people deserve to know when this technology is being used, so they can ask questions and exercise some choice in the matter if they wish. This transparency is important for building public knowledge and confidence in this technology. For implementing the same, they suggest:

  1. Legislation should come up with laws that require the entities that use facial recognition to identify consumers, notify them that these services are being used.
  2. The law should specify that consumers are consenting to the use of facial recognition services when they enter premises or proceed to use online services that have this type of clear notice.

#3 Issue: Use of facial recognition technology by a government can encroach domestic freedom

Regarding issue 3, Microsoft elaborates how facial recognition technology could put fundamental freedoms at risk. Governments can use this technology with surveillance cameras and massive computing power and storage in the cloud,  to enable continuous surveillance of specific individuals. It could follow anyone anywhere at any time or even all the time.

To prevent an encroachment on democratic freedoms, legislation should:

  1. 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 for the same.
  2. Where there is an emergency involving imminent danger or risk of death or serious physical injury to a person.

Microsoft, itself, has brought four lawsuits against the U.S. government since 2013 to protect people’s privacy rights.

Here are some comments from hacker news that caught our attention:

Smith mentions that Microsoft intends to let six principles to guide the company’s use of facial recognition going forward. They are: fairness, transparency, accountability, nondiscrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance. He further adds that Microsoft will formalize these principles through further documents, with an eye toward implementing them before the end of March 2019.

Head over to Smith’s full blog post to see his arguments and reasoning over Facial Recognition technology.

Read Next

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Australia’s Facial recognition and identity system can have “chilling effect on freedoms of political discussion, the right to protest and the right to dissent”: The Guardian report
Google opts out of Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI cloud computing contract, as it doesn’t align with its ethical use of AI principles


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