AnyVision facial recognition deployment controversy pulls in Microsoft

Microsoft is receiving criticism for its involvement in biometric facial recognition, due to its investment in Israeli company AnyVision, Forbes reports. AnyVision is reported to be supplying facial recognition for a system performing biometric surveillance inside the West Bank.

Forbes reports that the company also supplies its technology to agencies in Hong Kong and Russia, and also has customers and partnerships in Macau.

Microsoft’s investment arm M12 participated in AnyVision’s Series A funding round in June, which was reported to be $74 million at the time but Forbes reports at $78 million. The companies also planned a partnership, and AnyVision agreed to adopt Microsoft’s six principles for the responsible use of facial recognition.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Technology and Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan told Forbes that the company has not followed through on indications it would work against the proliferation of facial recognition.

“This particular investment is not a big surprise to me—there’s a demonstrable gap between action and rhetoric in the case of most big tech companies and Microsoft in particular,” he said.

The ACLU and Microsoft have clashed over regulation in Washington, backing competing bills, and Narayan says any internal debate at Microsoft about the decision to invest in AnyVision was not as transparent as the company has claimed to be.

Microsoft has been the most aggressive among tech giants in calling for regulation, corporate responsibility, to the extent of declining sales of facial recognition technology.

“AnyVision works with both civilian and non-civilian entities across the world, with applications in virtually every sector,” the company told Forbes in a statement following the article’s publication. “We are keenly aware of the benefit and potential that facial recognition technology can provide to society. Likewise, we recognize such powerful technology has the potential to be misused if placed in the wrong hands, and that we have an inherent responsibility to ensure our technology and products are used properly.”

The company’s ties to Israeli’s government and military make the optics even more complicated, as AnyVision counts a former Mossad head among its advisory board members, and its President Amir Kain is a former head of the security department at Israel’s defence ministry.

Amos Toh of Human Rights Watch, senior artificial intelligence and human rights researcher told Forbes there are various concerns with the use of the technology in a “fraught political context.”

“I think it’s incumbent on Microsoft to really look at what that means for the human rights risk associated with the investment in a company that’s providing this technology to an occupying power,” he says. “It’s not just privacy risk but a privacy risk associated with a minority group that has suffered repression and persecution for a long time. There are special considerations of discrimination there.”

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