Microsoft president outlines the challenges posed by facial recognition

Elly Yates-Roberts
By Elly Yates-Roberts on 07 December 2018
Microsoft president outlines the challenges posed by facial recognition

In a recent blogpost, Microsoft president Brad Smith has outlined the benefits and challenges posed by the use of facial recognition technology, as well as the legislation and procedures that need to be put in place in order to safeguard its use. 

Like many modern technologies, facial recognition can offer many new benefits to today’s digital world. According to Smith, in New Delhi facial recognition trials identified almost 3,000 missing children in only four days. In the US, historians have used the technology to identify unknown soldiers in Civil War photographs from the 1860s, and the National Australia Bank want to enable customers to withdraw money from ATMs using facial recognition and a PIN.

“Microsoft is one of several companies playing a leading role in developing facial recognition technology,” said Smith. “We’re working with customers around the world, while acting aggressively on industry-leading efforts to improve the capability of this technology to recognise faces with a range of ages and skin tones.”

However, Smith warns that there are problems that need to be addressed by legislation. “As we’ve continued to assess where this technology is heading, we believe there are three problems that governments need to address,” he said. “Certain uses of facial recognition technology increase the risk of decisions and…outcomes that are biased and…in violation of laws prohibiting discrimination. Second, the widespread use of this technology can lead to new intrusions into people’s privacy. And third, the use of facial recognition technology by a government for mass surveillance can encroach on democratic freedoms.”

Smith says that in recent months Microsoft has spent time seeking advice from employees, customers, public officials and academics in order to come up with six principles that address these concerns.

The first is fairness. “We will work to develop and deploy facial recognition technology in a manner that strives to treat all people fairly,” he said. 

With transparency as the second principle, Smith says that Microsoft “will document and clearly communicate the capabilities and limitations of facial recognition in technology.” 

The third principle is accountability – “We will encourage and help our customers to deploy facial recognition technology in a manner that ensures an appropriate level of human control for uses that may affect people in consequential ways.” 

Non-discrimination is the fourth principle Microsoft will be using to address the challenges of facial recognition. “We will prohibit in our terms of service the use of facial recognition technology to engage in unlawful discrimination,” said Smith.

The fifth is notice and consent, where Microsoft will encourage private sector customers to provide notice and secure content for the deployment of facial recognition technologies. 

Microsoft’s sixth and final principle in combatting the problems that facial recognition could potentially pose, is lawful surveillance. “We will advocate for safeguards for people’s democratic freedoms in law enforcement surveillance scenarios and will not deploy facial recognition technology in scenarios that we believe will put these freedoms at risk,” he said. 

“As with the regulatory issues discussed here, we’re taking an incremental approach with the adoption of these principles,” said Smith. “We readily recognise that we don’t yet have all the answers. Given the early stage of facial recognition technology, we don’t even know all the questions. But we believe that taking a principled approach will provide valuable experience that will enable us to learn faster.”

Smith said that Microsoft is committed to sharing its knowledge, “perhaps most especially with our customers through new material and training resources that will enable them to adopt facial recognition in a manner that gives their stakeholders and the public the confidence they deserve.”

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