Tech

Microsoft says it won't sell facial recognition software to police until there's a national law 'grounded in human rights'

Key Points
  • Brad Smith, Microsoft's president, said on Thursday the company will not sell its facial recognition software for police use until a national law is in place, "grounded in human rights," that governs its use. 
  • Smith said the company hasn't sold it to police departments and won't until a national law is in place "grounded in human rights" that governs the technology.
  • His statements follow similar announcements this week from IBM and Amazon.
Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, right, speaks as Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, left, and Princeton Graduate Maria De La Cruz Perales Sanchez listen during a news conference outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 12, 2019.
Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Following the lead of IBM and Amazon, Microsoft said Thursday that it has no current plans to sell facial recognition technology for police use, a sign that technology companies are getting more involved in the national debate on police reform.

In a conversation streamed online with The Washington Post's David Ignatius, Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company doesn't currently sell its technology to police departments in the U.S. and has decided that it won't until a national law is in place, "grounded in human rights," that governs its use. 

Smith's comments come a day after Amazon said it has put a one-year moratorium on the use of its facial recognition software, called Rekognition, by police departments, and three days after IBM said it was exiting the business. While Smith condones his tech counterparts for their actions, he stressed the importance of Congress pushing to make sure that bad actors aren't able to fill the void and promote their own version of the technology.

"I think It's important to see what IBM has done. I think it is important to recognize what Amazon has done. It is obviously similar to what we are doing," Smith said. "But if all 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. We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone. That is the only way that we will guarantee that we will protect the lives of people."

While facial recognition software has been a controversial subject in the recent past, its significance has increased since the death in late May of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. The incident, caught on video for the world to see, sparked nationwide protests and calls for dramatic police reform in cities across the country.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has held a number of hearings on the use of facial recognition technology, but has yet to introduce a bill regulating it. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., who serves on the committee told CNBC in a phone interview on Wednesday that he's hopeful Congress will pass a bill this year. 

Microsoft promotes facial recognition technology as part of its Azure cloud computing business. The website says developers can "embed facial recognition into your apps for a seamless and highly secured user experience." Uber uses it to "help ensure driver using the app matches the account on file."

Smith said Thursday that Microsoft has been focused on the issue of how the software is used for two years. 

"We've been taking a principled stand in advocating not only for ourselves, but the tech sector and, under the law, a principled stand for the country and the world," he said.

A Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement that the company is "also taking this opportunity to further strengthen our review processes for any customer seeking to use this technology at scale."

WATCH: Amazon halts police use of facial recognition software for one year

VIDEO0:4300:43
Amazon halts police use of facial recognition software for one year