Facial recognition tech a threat to privacy: Microsoft

The ability of computers to recognise people's faces is improving rapidly, along with the ubiquity of cameras and the power of computing hosted in the Internet cloud to figure out identities in real time.
The ability of computers to recognise people's faces is improving rapidly, along with the ubiquity of cameras and the power of computing hosted in the Internet cloud to figure out identities in real time.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Firm urges regulation, raises concerns about possible misuse of fast improving technology

SAN FRANCISCO • Microsoft's chief legal officer has called for the regulation of facial recognition technology due to the risk to privacy and human rights.

Mr Brad Smith made a case for a government initiative to lay out rules for the proper use of facial recognition technology, with input from a bipartisan and expert commission.

Facial recognition technology raises significant human rights and privacy concerns, Mr Smith said in a blog post last Friday.

"Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge," he said.

"Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech."

It could become possible for businesses to track visitors or customers, using what they see for decisions regarding credit scores, lending decisions, or employment opportunities without telling people.

INVASIVE AND INTRUSIVE

Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge... Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech.

MR BRAD SMITH, Microsoft's chief legal officer, on possible abuse of facial recognition technology.

He said scenarios portrayed in fictional films such as Minority Report, Enemy Of The State, and even the George Orwell dystopian classic 1984 are "on the verge of becoming possible".

"These issues heighten responsibility for tech companies that create these products," Mr Smith said.

"In our view, they also call for thoughtful government regulation and for the development of norms around acceptable uses."

Microsoft and other tech companies have used facial recognition technology for years for tasks such as organising digital photographs.

But the ability of computers to recognise people's faces is improving rapidly, along with the ubiquity of cameras and the power of computing hosted in the Internet cloud to figure out identities in real time.

While the technology can be used for good, perhaps finding missing children or known terrorists, it can also be abused.

"It may seem unusual for a company to ask for government regulation of its products, but there are many markets where thoughtful regulation contributes to a healthier dynamic for consumers and producers alike," Mr Smith said.

"It seems especially important to pursue thoughtful government regulation of facial recognition technology, given its broad societal ramifications and potential for abuse."

Concerns about misuse prompted Microsoft to "move deliberately" with facial recognition consulting or contracting, according to Mr Smith.

"This has led us to turn down some customer requests for deployments of this service where we've concluded that there are greater human rights risks," he said.

In April, privacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission saying that Facebook had turned on new face-matching services without obtaining appropriate permission of users.

Facebook has denied the groups' accusations.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 15, 2018, with the headline 'Facial recognition tech a threat to privacy: Microsoft'. Print Edition | Subscribe