Microsoft's president says the government needs to step up regulation of face recognition technology

Key Points
  • Microsoft, Amazon and Google have all been ensnared in issues related to government adoption of artificial intelligence software.
  • Microsoft said it will provide customers with more information when they're considering using it
Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith speaks during the annual Microsoft shareholders meeting in Bellevue, Washington on November 29, 2017.
JASON REDMOND | AFP | Getty Images

Amid increasing scrutiny around the government's use of artificial intelligence software, Microsoft said on Friday that it wants to see more regulation, specifically regarding technology that recognizes faces.

"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," Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post. "This in fact is what we believe is needed today – a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial recognition technology, informed first by a bipartisan and expert commission."

Microsoft, Amazon and Google are among the big tech companies investing heavily in AI, and each have faced pushback, including from employees, as reports detailed their work with government institutions. With Microsoft, there was concern that the company was supplying face recognition software to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as it separated families at the border. But Microsoft has since clarified that it's technology is being used only for more generic computing tasks, like email and calendar systems.

Smith indicated in his post that Microsoft is well aware of the flare-up over its collaboration with ICE, and acknowledged that some people wanted Microsoft to stop working with the agency. He didn't announce any change of plans.

Stocks still rising

Chatter about regulating tech companies has heated up in recent months, after it became clear how Facebook was used by outside firms to spread misinformation ahead of the 2016 election and as companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft continue to see their stocks rise to fresh records.

Microsoft has a long — and quite acrimonious — relationship with regulators, dating back to its antitrust case in the 1990s. We're in a different environment now, with the realization that software is being used in highly controversial and potentially dangerous ways.

Smith pointed to several areas where the government could potentially create standards so that companies themselves wouldn't have to be self-regulate. For instance, he asked if people have the right to know about the photos that the government possesses that are associated with them. This type of work could require coordination with other countries, he noted.

At the same time, Smith said, Microsoft will talking with customers, academics and privacy and human rights groups that deal with facial recognition.

"This work will take up to a few months, but we’re committed to completing it expeditiously," he wrote.

Microsoft also plans to be more transparent about its use of the technology.

"If we move too fast with facial recognition, we may find that people’s fundamental rights are being broken," he wrote.

Github coders urge Microsoft to break ties with US immigration department