Are you in favor of facial recognition? IBM, Microsoft and Amazon heat up toxic debate
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
Update: Tech giants are facing up to the controversy around facial recognition.
First it was IBM, when CEO Arvind Krishna sent a letter to members of Congress this week in which he said the company would stop selling “general purpose” facial recognition or analysis software.
Then on Wednesday, Amazon announced that it is implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon Rekognition, its own facial recognition technology.
A day later, Microsoft president Brad Smith told the Washington Post that it too would not sell facial recognition technology to the police, at least until the Federal government regulated it.
In a blog post, Amazon said it will continue to allow organizations like Thorn, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics use Rekognition "to help reduce human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families."
"We've advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge. We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules and we stand ready to help if requested.
Such moves haven't fully assuaged critics of facial recognition.
In a statement that was amended following both the Amazon and Microsoft developments, Evan Greer, deputy director of the Fight For The Future digital rights group said, "these `moratoria' are largely public relations stunts, but they are also a testament to the fact that Big Tech is realizing that facial recognition is politically toxic. We urge lawmakers to do their jobs and enact policies to immediately ban the use of facial recognition for surveillance purposes."
Should we ban the use of facial recognition?
IBM's recently appointed CEO Arvind Krishna sent a letter to members of Congress this week in which he said the tech giant would stop selling “general purpose” facial recognition or analysis software.
The decision by Big Blue’s is sure to raise the temperature around an already scorching debate.
“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,” Krishna wrote. “We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.”
Critics of facial recognition have questioned who gets access to your facial data and for how long? They wonder if the use of facial recognition is all about safety, surveillance, and convenience? Or on the flip side as a way for advertisers, law enforcement agencies and the government to track you?
Moreover, the accuracy and potential misuse of facial recognition have long been called into question, especially around the issues of racial and gender bias.
Findings from an MIT and University of Toronto study in January 2019, for instance, claimed the Amazon Recognition facial recognition system often misidentified darker-skinned females, and performed poorly compared to systems used by Microsoft and IBM.
Amazon has disputed the findings, and last year its shareholders overwhelmingly voted down a proposal that would have the company stop selling its facial recognition software to the government.
So what’s next?
IBM’s decision to pull out of the business, for now anyway, would seem to have a major impact, at least symbolically. But as Business Insider suggested, the words “general purpose” software in the Krishna letter may leave IBM some wiggle room.
And what of the other tech companies who are engaged in facial recognition?
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Illinois sued filed a suit against a company called Clearview AI alleging that its face surveillance activities will, in the words of ACLU senior staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, “end privacy as we know it, and must be stopped. This menacing technology gives governments, companies, and individuals the unprecedented power to spy on us wherever we go — tracking our faces at protests, AA meetings, political rallies, places of worship, and more.”
Meantime in the wake of IBM’s decision, @ACLU tweeted, “Your turn, @Amazon and Microsoft.”
What are your views on facial recognition? Have they changed since the George Floyd killing? And if you’re ok with the technology, under what circumstances?