Microsoft suggests responsible governance for facial recognition

Facial recognition is an amazing technology, but who is responsible for how companies and governments use it?
16 July 2018

Microsoft’s Brad Smith. Source: Microsoft

Over the past few weeks, news about various state governments here in the US using facial recognition technology has caused concerns.

Not only is it an invasion of privacy but also something that people feel will result in more racially biased profiling.

Imagine what it enables government bodies to do when citizens are tracked, in real-time, following their private choices, actions, and behaviors. That’s something that’s increasingly bothering many Americans.

However, use of the technology has spread to police bureaus and law enforcement agencies in many parts of Europe as well.

In fact, there’s a campaign calling for legal action against the police force in the UK for the use of facial recognition, stating that the “surveillance is unregulated and violates privacy”.

Through a recent 3,666-word blog post, Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith joins the growing voice calling for the regulation of how government bodies use the technology.

“The only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government, is for the government proactively to manage this use itself.

“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,” said Brad Smith.

According to the Microsoft President, asking tech companies to decide how the use of the technology should be governed isn’t the most efficient way to do things.

In his opinion, it’s an inadequate substitute for decision making by the public and its representatives in a democratic republic.

Ensuring that the government enacts appropriate legislation to check its own usage of facial is also likely to be far more effective in meeting public goals, ensuring a similar framework is followed for new technologies and applications as well.

So what issues should be addressed through government regulation? According to Smith, here are some of the most important initial questions to address:

  • 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?

This list, which is by no means exhaustive, illustrates the breadth and importance of the issues involved.

Smith also highlights the responsibilities of tech companies when it comes to handing developments in facial recognition and other technologies.

“The need for government leadership does not absolve technology companies of our own ethical responsibilities,” said Smith.

Given the importance and breadth of facial recognition issues, Microsoft recognizes that the tech sector has a responsibility to ensure that this technology is human-centered and developed in a manner consistent with broadly held societal values.

Many of these issues are new and no one has all the answers. Hence, tech companies still have work to do to identify all the questions – and according to Smith, the industry has a lot to learn.

In conclusion, the company’s president acknowledged that the future is not simple.

“A government agency that is doing something objectionable today may do something that is laudable tomorrow,” said Smith.

Therefore, the world needs a principled approach for facial recognition technology, embodied in law, that outlasts a single administration or the important political issues of a moment.

“We have elected representatives in Congress that have the tools needed to assess this new technology, with all its ramifications. We benefit from the checks and balances of a Constitution that has seen us from the age of candles to an era of artificial intelligence”, concluded the 59-year old executive.