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  • Thierry Spanjaard

Facial recognition under scrutiny

Never in history has a technology been abandoned because it was too dangerous or too lethal: chemical warfare, nuclear bombs and bacteriologic weapons do exist. But there is always a will to regulate their use. With recent decisions by technology giants Amazon, IBM and Microsoft, are we living a pivotal moment in the history of facial recognition technology?

A few days ago, Amazon announced a one-year moratorium on police use of Rekognition, its facial recognition software. The moratorium comes after critics and racial justice groups repeated calls to Amazon to stop providing police and immigration officials with tools that can be used to target people based on race.

Amazon’s Rekognition is a cloud-based computer vision software that enables customers to match photos based on visual similarities. It can recognize objects like dogs, chairs, and beaches. Amazon started to market this offer specifically to police departments back in 2016. Typically, police departments have been uploading large batches of mug shots to Amazon servers and then using Rekognition to compare a new pic, sometimes coming from surveillance cameras, with the existing base.

With this moratorium, Amazon said in a statement it “might give Congress enough time to put in place appropriate rules” for the ethical use of facial recognition.

IBM also announced it was getting out of facial recognition business, under growing criticism of the technology, employed by multiple companies, for exhibiting racial and gender bias.

IBM CEO Arvind Krishna sent a letter to the US Congress outlining policy proposals to advance racial equality. “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency,” he wrote.

Microsoft soon followed suit, announcing that it would not sell its facial recognition software for police use until a national law is in place. Microsoft President Brad Smith added the company doesn’t currently sell its technology to police departments in the US.

One may note that following the usual analysis of the US Constitution, these companies consider US citizens deserve rights to privacy, while they feel allowed to keep on selling their technology without constraints to the rest of the world. Governments and police forces, beyond the US, may be tempted to implement police uses of facial recognition and they essentially have to choose between technologies developed in the US or in China, while considering the cyber-risks associated to the sources of these products, on top of potential bias as demonstrated by research.

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