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3 months ago
Big Tech Companies Back Away From Selling Facial Recognition to Police. That’s Progress.

 
Originally published in Vox, June 11, 2020.

After IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft upend their facial recognition businesses, attention turns to federal lawmakers.

Microsoft president Brad Smith announced on Thursday that his company did not sell facial recognition to the police, and would not until the government passes federal legislation regulating the technology. His statement follows a Wednesday announcement from Amazon explaining that the company would institute a one-year moratorium on police use of Rekognition, the company’s facial recognition software.

That change also comes after IBM’s announcement earlier this week that the company would no longer offer facial recognition products, citing the technology’s potential for abuse or misuse. As scrutiny of law enforcement ramps up, it looks as though there could be a referendum on the surveillance tools police can access, though it’s notoriously difficult to determine what surveillance systems police departments actually have. Law enforcement agencies and tech companies are typically secretive about these products, which are by no means limited to just facial recognition.

Still, this is certainly a sign that the needle of public acceptance of facial recognition is moving. For years, advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the digital rights group Fight for the Future have sounded the alarm that facial recognition raises significant privacy and surveillance concerns. And researchers like Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, and Deborah Raji have demonstrated that these technologies can come with concerning built-in racial and gender biases.

The timing of these facial recognition announcements is important. The recent scrutiny of the technology comes amid ongoing anti-police brutality demonstrations, which have drawn increased attention to the surveillance tools large technology companies can and do sell to law enforcement. The news also comes as lawmakers have zeroed in on law enforcement’s access to surveillance tools and their potential use on protests, which was the subject of a letter sent by members of Congress to leaders of several federal agencies earlier this week. Now, amid several big companies making announcements about facial recognition, it’s possible lawmakers will be more anxious to regulate than before.

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