Microsoft Begs Congress: Regulate Face Recognition Technology

Security Solutions Today

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All tools can be used for good or ill, said Brad Smith.

The President of Microsoft added, “The more powerful the tool, the greater the benefit or damage it can cause.”

The tool he is referring to? Facial recognition technology, or the ability of a computer to recognise people’s faces from a photo or through a camera.

In a July 13 blog, he warned of the danger the technology poses. It could be used to invade privacy and improperly monitor people, he stressed.

“This technology can catalog your photos, help reunite families or potentially be misused and abused by private companies and public authorities alike. Facial recognition technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression. These issues heighten responsibility for tech companies that create these products. In our view, they also call for thoughtful government regulation and for the development of norms around acceptable uses…. Facial recognition will require the public and private sectors alike to step up – and to act.”

Facial recognition technology has been advancing rapidly over the past decade. And Microsoft admits that it is among the many tech companies that have utilised this technology the past several years to turn time-consuming work like photo cataloguing into something both instantaneous and useful.

The problem now, said Smith, is that computer vision is getting better and faster in recognising people’s faces. This improvement is due to better cameras, sensors and machine learning capabilities as well as the advent of larger and larger datasets as more images of people are stored online.

It is also heightened by the ability to use the cloud to connect all this data and facial recognition technology with live cameras that capture images of people’s faces and seek to identify them in more places and in real time.

“… it is becoming deeply infused in our personal and professional lives. This means the potential uses of facial recognition are myriad,” wrote Brad.

Face recognition technology is already improving security for computer users, with many Windows laptops and iPhones recognising face instead of requiring a password to gain access to the device.

Its use can even lead to profound scenarios, said Brad, like finding a young missing child by recognising her as she is being walked down the street. Or helping to identify a terrorist bent on destruction as he walks into the arena where you’re attending a sporting event.

But the technology can also be put to terrifying use.

“Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge,” voiced Brad. “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.”

Governments may use the technology to monitor political and other public activities, which will dampen citizens’ willingness to turn out for political events and undermining core freedoms of assembly and expression, stated Smith.

The technology is far from perfect
Plus facial recognition is far from perfect, pointed out Brad. Biases have been found in the performance of several fielded face recognition technologies. The technologies worked more accurately for white men than for white women and were more accurate in identifying persons with lighter complexions than people of colour.

Facial recognition, like many AI technologies, typically have some rate of error, stressed Brad.
“What role do we want this type of technology to play in everyday society?”

Demands increasingly are surfacing for tech companies to limit the way government agencies use facial recognition and other technology, wrote Smith.

“These issues are not going to go away. They reflect the rapidly expanding capabilities of new technologies that increasingly will define the decade ahead. Facial recognition is the technology of the moment, but it’s apparent that other new technologies will raise similar issues in the future. This makes it even more important that we use this moment to get the direction right.”
Many have called on the companies developing the technology to put restrictions on its use. But the only way to manage and regulate the technology is for the government to do it, believes Smith.

“And if there are concerns about how a technology will be deployed more broadly across society, the only way to regulate this broad use is for the government to do so. This in fact is what we believe is needed today – a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial recognition technology, informed first by a bipartisan and expert commission.”

He added, “We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology. As a general principle, it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government.”

Such a call from a tech company is virtually unheard of. For years, tech companies have been inventing new technologies and products faster than the government can regulate them. This often means a long lag time before the government steps in to set some rules. Even at this late stage, however, tech companies typically fights against government efforts to regulate their products and services.