Microsoft is calling for government regulation of facial recognition, citing both the benefits and risks associated with the technology. “Facial recognition technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a long essay today. For all the good it offers, the same technology can be used to oppress a population.
Smith gets right at the heart of the matter, highlighting both the benefits society can get from facial recognition technology, as well as the damage it can do if misused. On the plus side, such tech can enhance security, help identify missing children, improve digital experiences (like sorting through digital images), and more.
“But other potential applications are more sobering,” Smith said, pointing to the potential for governments to surveil a population, create databases of people who attend political events, and more. Corporations can similarly misuse such technology, though for different reasons, possibly using it to track customer shopping habits and share that information without permission.
Facial recognition technology is improving at a rapid pace and many consumers already enjoy some of the benefits of it. Smith points out that the tech isn’t perfect, though, and that itself is a potential complication. Addressing that issue, Smith said:
As reported widely in recent months, biases have been found in the performance of several fielded face recognition technologies. The technologies worked more accurately for white men than for white women and were more accurate in identifying persons with lighter complexions than people of color …
Even if biases are addressed and facial recognition systems operate in a manner deemed fair for all people, we will still face challenges with potential failures. Facial recognition, like many AI technologies, typically have some rate of error even when they operate in an unbiased way. And the issues relating to facial recognition go well beyond questions of bias themselves, raising critical questions about our fundamental freedoms.
Smith calls on the government to step in and regulate the use of facial recognition technology, ensuring it isn’t misused by the government or private companies. Microsoft specifically mentions calls for private companies to regulate the use, saying that it ultimately believes that to be “an inadequate substitute for decision making by the public and its representatives in a democratic republic.”
We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology. As a general principle, it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government.
We’ve already seen controversies surrounding facial recognition technology and its potential use by governments, as well as concerning practices already taking place. China, for example, has been testing the use of smart glasses with facial recognition by law enforcement as, among other things, a way to more effectively censor certain individuals.