Now Even Microsoft Is Calling for Facial Recognition Software to Be Regulated, and We're Officially Creeped Out

Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith speaks during the annual Microsoft shareholders meeting in Bellevue, Washington on November 29, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Jason Redmond

In early July, a New York Times story about how Chinese officials are using facial recognition technology to track down lawbreakers went viral.

The story opened with a short anecdote about a police officer in Zhengzhou who used his special glasses to catch a heroin smuggler. His glasses were powered by artificial intelligence that allowed him to match the faces around him — each of which had been recorded by numerous security cameras around the city — with the face of the perpetrator. People around the world tweeted about the dystopian nature of this use of technology, making the usual jokes about the movie Minority Report. In the U.S., many worried about whether we might be next. As with most viral news stories, this was knocked off the top of the trending list by the next story.

Just a few days later, however, Microsoft president Brad Smith gave some credence to those worries in a blog post calling for Congress to regulate the use of facial recognition technology in the U.S. before it’s too late.

“All tools can be used for good or ill,” he wrote. “Facial recognition technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression.”

Microsoft’s choice to address these issues by calling for regulation was reminiscent of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comment to Congress in March that, “Actually, I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated.” Zuckerberg was concerned about political organizations using his platform to spread false news or damaging information (and about being perceived as partial to one political party over the other); Smith of Microsoft is worried about the government using its technology to probe citizens’ lives and infringe upon their rights.

Smith’s blog post was in line with his company’s recent efforts to position itself as the “moral compass” of Silicon Valley. But it also came after an outcry that threatened that image.

In June, while the country was up in arms over actions by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, several people on Twitter shared links to a January blog post in which Microsoft general manager Tom Keane discussed a contract with ICE and noted that a Microsoft product, Azure Government, had passed a high-security threshold. The post also mentioned that this new Authority to Operate for Azure might help facilitate ICE’s work, including, potentially, using facial recognition.  

Amid the uproar, Smith wrote, Microsoft looked into it, and found that ICE was not using Azure for facial recognition or anything having to do with family separation. Acknowledging calls for the company to cut ties with ICE altogether, Smith made a different suggestion: more regulation.

“The only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government to proactively manage this use itself,” he wrote. “While we appreciate that some people today are calling for tech companies to make these decisions … we believe this is an inadequate substitute for decision making by the public and its representatives in a democratic republic.”

Specifically, Smith called on the government to consider: whether law enforcement use of facial recognition, as in China, should be subject to human oversight and restrictions; whether civilians should be part of that oversight; what might prevent facial recognition from being used in racial profiling; whether retailer should have to post notices about facial recognition technology, as they do about security cameras; and several other related questions.

As Smith was quick to point out, Microsoft isn’t the only company dealing with this issue. Salesforce and Amazon have also been the focus of shareholder pressure and boycotts regarding relationships with ICE, and Facebook came under fire in an April lawsuit alleging that it turned on face-matching services without asking users first. But Microsoft is the first to call for a “bipartisan and expert commission” to take regulatory action.

With a divided Congress in the midst of hearings about what Facebook does or does not owe to its users and the republic, however, Microsoft may have to wait its turn.

ABC News

As more information becomes available regarding the virus that's caused a public health crisis in the United States, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged Americans in hard-hit areas to begin wearing cloth masks to cover their faces.

Unlike medical professionals, who need N95 masks (of which there is a shortage) when treating virus patients, average Americans can wear makeshift cloth masks that block the saliva droplets through which the virus is spread.

Keep reading... Show less
Tom Brenner/Getty Images // MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Given President Donald Trump's propensity for lying and his administration's constant misinformation regarding the current global pandemic, Americans across the country have become selective about which sources they deem as credible in seeking potentially lifesaving information in the face of a national health crisis.

Iowa's Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, is in stark disagreement with most Americans on whom to trust regarding measures designed to curb the virus.

Iowa is one of a few states that still has yet to issue a stay-at-home order to slow the virus's spread. Reynolds has resisted taking the step despite a unanimous recommendation from the Iowa Board of Medicine to do so.

National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said that all states should institute these orders.

Reynolds's response was...telling.

After calling stay-at-home orders a "divisive issue," the governor said:

"I would say that maybe [Fauci] doesn't have all the information"

Fauci has quickly become one of the most notable figures in the pandemic's response, and one of the few officials in President Donald Trump's virus task force that Americans widely trust to deliver accurate information. He's been an integral part of curbing health crises from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States to Avian Flu to H1N1 and more.

If Fauci doesn't have all the information, then the country is—for lack of a better word—completely screwed.

People were appalled at the governor's defense.

It's safe to say that Fauci has more information and experience in these situations than any governor in the nation—including Reynolds.

The death toll in the United States from the virus recently surpassed 6000.

Information saves lives. Ignorance endangers them.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the face of the global pandemic that's killed over 5000 Americans, President Donald Trump is still expressing reluctance to employ federal powers to assist states hardest hit by the virus.

Among the most urgent of obstacles some governors are facing is a shortage of crucial medical equipment—including ventilators—often needed to treat the highly contagious respiratory virus.

Keep reading... Show less
Mark Makela/Getty Images

The respiratory virus that's ballooned into a global pandemic and brought daily life in the United States to a halt has carried another chilling side effect with it.

Because the virus originated in Wuhan, China, anti-Chinese hysteria has sprouted up across the country. These racist flames have only been stoked by President Donald Trump, whose insistence on calling it "Chinese virus" corresponded with an uptick in hate crimes and harassment of Asian Americans across the across the United States, regardless of their country of origin or ancestry.

Keep reading... Show less
Samuel Corum/Getty Images // SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Even in the face of a national health crisis that threatens hundreds of thousands of American lives, President Donald Trump has consistently signaled that he's incapable of rising to the urgency of the moment, choosing instead to pick fights with governors over Twitter and to brag about the ratings of his press briefings.

That string of behavior continued with a letter to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), which read more like one of the President's Twitter screeds than a letter from the President of the United States.

Keep reading... Show less
U.S. Navy

The internet is flooded with messages of support for Navy Captain Brett Crozier, who commands the 5000 person crew of the Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier that was recently forced to dock in Guam.

Crozier sent a letter to the Navy this week begging for additional supplies and resources to aid the 93 people on the Roosevelt who tested positive for the virus that's become a global pandemic, as well as facilities for the additional 1000 people who need to be quarantined.

Keep reading... Show less