By Asa Fitch
Microsoft Corp. won't sell facial-recognition technology to U.S. police until there is a national law regulating its use, the company's President Brad Smith said Thursday.
Microsoft joined other big tech names including Amazon.com Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. to call for clearer rules around the surveillance technology amid widespread concern about its potential for racial bias.
The issue has attracted greater attention amid growing outcry about police brutality and what many see as institutionalized racism in law enforcement, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody.
Microsoft has long taken a careful stance on facial recognition, putting self-imposed curbs on its sales of the technology to law enforcement. As a result of those limits, Mr. Smith said during a Washington Post event that the company wasn't currently selling facial recognition to police in the U.S.
"We've decided that we will not sell facial-recognition technology to police departments in the United States until we have a national law in place, grounded in human rights, that will govern this technology," he said.
Mr. Smith said last year that Microsoft had declined to sell facial recognition to a police department in California over concern that it could be used for mass surveillance. But the decision not to deal with police forces until laws are in place to regulate facial recognition took its caution a step further.
A wave of tech companies have been re-examining police use of their facial-recognition technology, which studies have shown can come with embedded racial and gender biases. Those biases mean people with darker skin and women tend to be misidentified more often than Caucasians and men.
Amazon on Wednesday placed a one-year moratorium on the use of its facial-recognition software by police. IBM said this week that it exited the business. Google, the search giant owned by Alphabet Inc., two years ago said it wouldn't offer general purpose facial-recognition tools until concerns about their use were resolved.
Matt Cagle, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, called on Microsoft and other tech companies to support legislation nationwide to prohibit law enforcement's use of the technology.
"We welcome these companies finally taking action -- as little and as late as it may be," he said.
Hoan Ton-That, chief executive of Clearview AI Inc., a facial-recognition startup that has sparked controversy among privacy advocates over its use by police departments, defended the technology. "Clearview AI has created groundbreaking technology that actually works, " he said.
The company, he said, "is also committed to the responsible use of its powerful technology and is used only for after-the-crime investigations to help identify criminal suspects. It is not intended to be used as a surveillance tool relating to protests or under any other circumstances."
Mr. Smith said the varying approaches of companies offering the technology underlined the necessity of putting laws in place to govern it.
"If all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those that are not prepared to take a stand, we won't necessarily serve the national interest or the lives of the black and African-American people of this nation well," he said. "We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone."
Efforts to put legislative limits on facial recognition are at an early stage. While some cities, including the tech hub of San Francisco, have banned facial recognition's use by police, there are no similar federal-level curbs. A bill introduced earlier this week in the House would prohibit real-time facial recognition in federal law-enforcement body cameras.
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