IBM weighs in on facial recognition technology debate

The computing firm has called for ‘precision regulation’, not an outright ban.
8 November 2019

IBM argues that mass surveillance should be regulated out. Source: Shutterstock

Facial recognition and biometric software are increasingly appearing in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. 

While many technology vendors, security firms, and governments sing its praises for safety and verification, massive data leaks and accusations of unlawful surveillance only heighten concerns and paranoia about access to and misuse of the most personal of personal data in the public domain. 

On the one hand, the technology promises innovation— whether that’s use in cybersecurity (MFA, for example) and even affective computing. On the other, there’s the belief that it can provide its users, such as the public sector, with dangerous surveillance power.

Such were the concerns that led to a ban in the use of facial recognition in any kind of surveillance technology in San Francisco earlier this year, and an investigation into and subsequent scrapping of the technology at London’s Kings Cross.  

With the data privacy debate rattling on and unlikely to taper soon, the world’s tech giants are beginning to make their voices heard on the matter. 

Already Microsoft has been vocal about the need to properly regulate facial recognition technology, appealing directly to congress over its “societal ramifications and potential for abuse” and contribution to a “dystopian” future.

The Silicon Valley monolith blocked sales of its tech to California police forces— it even deleted a database of more than 10 million images of close to 100,000 people. 

A different stance was taken by Amazon which wants to corner a public sector market for its Rekognition technology. The tech has been rolled out to police forces in the States, while Amazon sought further support drafting regulations for the review of federal regulators. 

The firm’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, briefly acknowledged the weight between innovation and potential for misuse, calling it “classic dual-use kind of technology.” 

IBM weighs in

The latest firm to make its stance known on the debate is IBM— and that stance seems to slot in somewhere between the two examples mentioned above.

In a whitepaper posted on its site, the computing firm argued for “precision regulation” to protect privacy and civil liberties, against an outright ban. It said policymakers should understand that “not all technology lumped under the umbrella of ‘facial recognition’ is the same.”

The report, by IBM Chief Privacy Officer Christina Montgomery and Ryan Hagemann, Co-Director for the IBM Policy Lab, continued: “[…]  blanket bans on technology are not the answer to concerns around specific use cases.

“Casting such a wide regulatory net runs the very real risk of cutting us off from the many— and potentially life-saving— benefits these technologies offer.”

IBM’s position strikes a deliberately balanced and measured note. It argues that a full ban might remove the chances of positive innovation, such as less frustrating air travel and use by first responders to quickly identify victims of natural disasters. 

However, it asserted that use for mass surveillance and racial profiling should be regulated out, while a burden of responsibility lies on vendors to make policies not to provide the technology to bodies and regimes known for human rights violations. 

Its position lies in “notice and consent” when the technology is used to identify someone, whereby any organization seeking to use the technology would be required to clearly notify that systems were in use, whatever the reason. 

With the biometrics market poised to be worth US$8 billion in 2020, IBM’s statement on the matter is a diplomatic, if potentially strategic, one. 

As the market develops, and use cases of biometrics continue to proliferate across sectors and applications, it would be commercially unwise for one of the world’s largest computing firms to have a clear objection to the technology on its record.