Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a July 13 blog post that the Federal government, along with lawmakers in governments worldwide, must develop appropriate regulations for the use of facial recognition technology by individuals, organizations, and government entities.

Citing the “broad societal ramifications and potential for abuse,” Smith is calling for Congress to decide how the technology will be governed in the future.

What Government Should Consider

“The only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself,” he said. “And if there are concerns about how a technology will be deployed more broadly across society, the only way to regulate this broad use is for the government to do so. This in fact is what we believe is needed today – a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial recognition technology.”

Smith’s post comes on the heels of social media backlash over a Microsoft contract with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, that some believed tied Microsoft to ICE efforts to use facial recognition technology in border activities that have separated children from their families. Smith said the contract in question does not use facial recognition, nor has Microsoft aided in these projects, a practice to which he said the company has “strongly objected.”

But Smith said that facial recognition technology could eventually aid in surreptitious government tracking, inappropriate profiling and cataloguing of individuals, and activities with far greater implications than the technology’s current role helping to tag individuals in social media photos.

With that in mind, Smith suggested that governments consider several issues when drafting legislation to regulate facial recognition technology, including:

  • Use as evidence of an individual’s guilt or innocence of a crime
  • Potential civilian oversight of use for governmental national security practices
  • Prevention of racial profiling and right violations
  • Establishing minimum performance levels on accuracy
  • Notifying citizens of use in public spaces
  • Situations where prior consent is needed
  • Citizens’ right to know what identifying images are being stored
  • Legal rights for those who have been misidentified

“While some question whether members of Congress have sufficient expertise on technology issues, at Microsoft we believe Congress can address these issues effectively,” he said. “The key is for lawmakers to use the right mechanisms to gather expert advice to inform their decision making.”

To that end, Smith is calling for “a bipartisan expert commission to assess the best way to regulate the use of facial recognition technology in the United States” by calling in stakeholders from various areas.

What the Private Sector Should Consider

Smith said that the burden doesn’t fall on lawmakers alone. He discussed what he felt are the technology sector’s responsibilities, highlighting four that apply particularly to his own organization.

The first, Smith said, is “to continue the important work needed to reduce the risk of bias in facial recognition technology,” in light of news that humans may be responsible in introducing bias into computer vision algorithms, resulting in facial recognition that “worked more accurately for white men than for white women and were more accurate in identifying persons with lighter complexions than people of color.”

The second is “the need to take a principled and transparent approach in the development and application of facial recognition technology.” Smith said Microsoft will establish “a transparent set of principles” that it will share with the public. He also acknowledged that the company must consider the use of its broader IT infrastructure – a possible nod to Microsoft’s Azure Cloud environment – by third parties creating their own facial recognition software for use in the cloud.

The third responsibility Smith noted involves “going more slowly when it comes to the deployment of the full range of facial recognition technology.” He said that Microsoft has turned down customer requests where it “concluded that there are greater human rights risks.”

Finally, Smith said that Microsoft is committed to aiding in any public policy deliberations where its expertise might be helpful. “We’re committed to serving as a voice for the ethical use of facial recognition and other new technologies, both in the United States and around the world,” he said.

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Joe Franco
Joe Franco
Joe Franco is a Program Manager, covering IT modernization, cyber, and government IT policy for