MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON

Microsoft wants Congress to regulate facial recognition

Microsoft is asking Congress to create a bipartisan, expert-led committee to draft regulations for facial recognition, the company’s president Brad Smith wrote in a blog post today.

But the rules aren’t just to keep tech companies on the right track. Microsoft argued that regulation is necessary because it also lays foundations for what the US government can and can’t do with the technology as well, creating safeguards for citizens against constant surveillance that the technology could facilitate. Smith also wrote that the company had turned down customers that had requested the use of facial recognition on “human rights risks.”

“The only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself,” Smith said.

Smith looks at the auto industry for a model of how tech companies could be incentivized by regulation to make their products better. He references laws requiring seatbelts that saved lives, and stricter fuel economy standards that save consumers money and produce less emissions.

For facial recognition, one of these metrics for regulation could be ensuring the technology works similarly for all, regardless of appearance or skin tone. AI researcher Joy Buolamwini showed earlier this year that facial recognition systems from Microsoft and IBM were less accurate for women and people of color, prompting the company to overhaul its facial recognition systems.

Smith reaffirmed Microsoft’s commitment against algorithmic bias in today’s blog post: “No one benefits from the deployment of immature facial recognition technology that has greater error rates for women and people of color.”

Microsoft also faced backlash against its contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement last month, with criticism suggesting that the company was providing facial recognition to ICE while the government agency separated families at the border. Smith wrote that after a review of the contract, Microsoft was not providing facial recognition, only providing email, calendar, messaging and electronic storage services.

“These issues are not going to go away,” Smith said. “Facial recognition is the technology of the moment, but it’s apparent that other new technologies will raise similar issues in the future. This makes it even more important that we use this moment to get the direction right.”

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