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Microsoft announces six principles for responsible facial recognition and urges new laws


Microsoft President Brad Smith is at it again. In a move to accept corporate responsibility and forward public policy dialogue, Smith announced in a blog post that the company will carry out a plan to implement six principles for ethical facial recognition by the end of Q1 2019.

After he called for facial recognition to be specifically regulated in July, Smith warned in November that failing to act soon could have a profound impact on fundamental civil liberties. Now Smith writes that believes a basis exists for initial legislation which would allow facial biometric technology to continue advancing while protecting public interests. It is also up to tech companies to address the issues related to the growing use of facial recognition, according to Smith.

He identifies three problems that need to be addressed. The current state of the technology increases the risk of biased decisions and outcomes in certain situations, its widespread use can lead to privacy intrusions, and its use by governments for mass surveillance could encroach on democratic freedoms, Smith asserts.

To address those problems, Microsoft is adopting six principles for facial recognition; fairness, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance.

Acting to ensure responsible technology use will ultimately benefit the market, Smith argues. “In particular, we don’t believe that the world will be best served by a commercial race to the bottom, with tech companies forced to choose between social responsibility and market success,” he writes. “We believe that the only way to protect against this race to the bottom is to build a floor of responsibility that supports healthy market competition. And a solid floor requires that we ensure that this technology, and the organizations that develop and use it, are governed by the rule of law.”

Smith notes several beneficial examples of the power of facial recognition technology, including a reported 3,000 missing children found over 4 days in India, and a recently-designed proof of concept for a cardless ATM. He also refers to Microsoft’s results in the NIST’s Ongoing Facial Recognition Vendor Test (FRVT), in which the company’s algorithms were among the most accurate of 39 vendors, and the company’s efforts to improve the capability of its technology to recognize faces across different ages and skin tones.

Smith sets out a plan and several recommendations, including legislation to support third-party testing. He also puts the position in legal context, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the government cannot obtain location records through cellphone metadata without a warrant.

Advocating for a proactive but incremental approach, Microsoft is sure to win both praise and criticism, but the battle over biometric regulation is just beginning.

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