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Microsoft says it's time to get serious about facial recognition rules: 'Laws and regulations are indispensable'

Really, you all, stop it! Hey, Amazon, what's going on back there? Enough! Cut that out!

Microsoft's president has issued a clarion call for more government regulation in response to the rapid evolution of facial recognition technology.

On Thursday, Brad Smith, who is also the Windows emporium's chief legal officer, declared it's time for action on the issue before it's too late.

"We believe it’s important for governments in 2019 to start adopting laws to regulate this technology," Smith opined on Thursday. "The facial recognition genie, so to speak, is just emerging from the bottle. 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."

Smith said something similar back in June when he called for "thoughtful government regulation and for the development of norms around acceptable uses."

Governments, law enforcement agencies, and corporate stakeholders haven't exactly fought to engage on these issues; rather, they've forged ahead without any meaningful limitations, to the consternation of civil liberties groups, he said.

According to the non-profit Project on Government Oversight, Congress hasn't limited the use of facial recognition and most states haven't either. And by most, the group means all but one – Oregon is the only US state with a law that limits the technology.

"[T]he federal government is failing to do basic due-diligence to test and audit its facial recognition systems," the advocacy group said on Wednesday, pointing to a US Government Accountability Office report last year that found the FBI ignored its recommendations and had failed to test the accuracy of facial recognition systems.

Such scoldings haven't dampened interest in the tech. Last week, Uncle Sam's Department of Homeland Security said the Secret Service plans to test facial recognition software at the White House on agents who have volunteered for the pilot program.

The private sector hasn't shown much interest in hitting the brakes either, which is why eight Democratic lawmakers last week sent a letter of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demanding details about its face grabbing service AWS Rekognition, which has been marketed to and deployed by law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile in China, facial recognition has become part of the national surveillance infrastructure.

The technology has undeniable benefits. Microsoft in 2017 recounted the heartwarming tale of how its facial recognition tech – in China, if you can imagine that – helped reunite a father with his son who has Down syndrome and had been lost for four years. And Smith points to other positive uses like identifying dead people in photos, diagnosing diseases, and obviating the need for passwords.

But promise of facial recognition must be reconciled with its problems. Smith argues facial recognition systems can lead to errors and discrimination, can intrude on people's privacy, and can undermine democratic freedoms.


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He expects some of these issues will be resolved in court – so it could take a while – but urges state and federal legislators to take action in the meantime. He also wants tech companies – organizations that celebrate moving fast and breaking things – to show some restraint.

"While we believe that new laws and regulations are indispensable, we also recognize that they are not a substitute for the responsibility that needs to be exercised by tech companies," he said, as if self-regulation actually worked.

Nonetheless, Smith says 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.

Given that there are hardly any laws in the US governing facial recognition, that last one should be easy. Missing is any commitment to turn down hefty contracts from authoritarian regimes or the military.

Smith says Microsoft will formalize these principles through further documents, with an eye toward implementing them before the end of March 2019.

Your move Amazon, Facebook, Google et al. ®

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