Microsoft Urges Congress to Regulate Use of Facial Recognition


Amid a growing call for regulations to limit the use of facial recognition technology, Microsoft on Friday became the first tech giant to join the chorus.

In a lengthy blog post about the potential and the risks of facial recognition, Bradford L. Smith, the company’s president, compared the technology to products like medicines and cars that are highly regulated, and he urged Congress to study it and oversee its use.

“We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology,” Mr. Smith wrote. He added: “A world with vigorous regulation of products that are useful but potentially troubling is better than a world devoid of legal standards.”

Tech giants rarely advocate for additional regulation of their products. But in recent months, some have been harshly criticized for their role in Russia’s effort to undermine the 2016 election, and for how they handle users’ personal data. Some companies, like Facebook, are expressing more openness to laws on disclosures related to online advertisements.

Facial recognition has become a new focus for critics. The powerful technology can be used to identify people in photos or video feeds without their knowledge or permission. Proponents see it as a potentially important tool for identifying criminals, but civil liberties experts have warned that the technology could enable mass surveillance, hindering people’s ability to freely attend political protests or go about their day-to-day lives in anonymity.

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.

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In May, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups asked Amazon to stop selling its face-matching service, Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies. (The New York Times recently used Amazon’s services to help identify attendees at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.)

Now, Microsoft is moving to position itself as an industry leader by calling for government regulation of facial recognition, and for “the development of norms around acceptable uses,” of the technology. The company may also be trying to get out ahead of a budding movement in states like California to tightly regulate the technology.

Mr. Smith, the company’s president, suggested that governments around the world should examine law enforcement and commercial uses of the technology.

“Should law enforcement use of facial recognition be subject to human oversight and controls?” he wrote. “Should the law require that companies obtain prior consent before collecting individuals’ images for facial recognition?”

In the European Union, many of these questions have already been settled.

A tough new data protection law there generally prohibits companies from collecting the biometric data needed for facial recognition without first obtaining users’ specific consent. Illinois has similar restrictions.

In his blog post, Mr. Smith said Congress should appoint a commission to study the issue and make recommendations on potential regulations. The Federal Trade Commission has already examined facial recognition, recommending in a report that certain companies “provide consumers with an easy-to-use choice not to have their biometric data collected and used for facial recognition.”

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Microsoft markets facial recognition software that can detect faces in photos, as well as facial features like hair color, and emotions like anger or disgust, according to the company’s site.

The company also markets facial recognition software that “enables you to search, identify, and match faces in your private repository of up to one million people,” the site said. Uber has used the technology to verify drivers’ identities, according to Microsoft marketing materials.

Mr. Smith wrote in the blog post that Microsoft was examining its own development and marketing of the technology.

A recent study led by an M.I.T. researcher found that facial recognition software from Microsoft and IBM was much more accurate in identifying white men than darker-skinned females. Mr. Smith said the company was working to improve the accuracy of its facial recognition and to reduce the potential for bias.

He also said Microsoft had rejected facial recognition requests from certain customers “where we’ve concluded that there are greater human rights risks,” and that the company was committed to “establishing a transparent set of principles” for the technology.

Microsoft employees recently protested the company’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that has been involved in the separation of migrant children from their families at the border. In his blog post, Mr. Smith wrote that the company’s contract with that agency “isn’t being used for facial recognition” or to separate families.

April Isenhower, a Microsoft spokeswoman, declined to answer questions about whether the company provided facial recognition services to other government agencies. She also declined to discuss the company’s position on consumer consent for facial recognition.

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