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Google favors temporary facial recognition ban as Microsoft pushes back

Google favors temporary facial recognition ban as Microsoft pushes back


The EU is considering a five-year ban on the technology, but big tech is divided

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The regulation of facial recognition is emerging as a key disagreement among the world’s biggest tech companies, with Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai suggesting a temporary ban, as recently suggested by the EU, might be welcome, while Microsoft’s chief legal officer Brad Smith cautions against such intervention.

“I think it is important that governments and regulations tackle it sooner rather than later and give a framework for it,” Pichai said at a conference in Brussels on Monday, reports Reuters. “It can be immediate but maybe there’s a waiting period before we really think about how it’s being used ... It’s up to governments to chart the course.”

But in an interview published last week, Smith, who also serves as Microsoft’s chief legal officer, was dismissive of the idea of a moratorium.

“This is young technology. It will get better.”

“Look, you can try to solve a problem with a meat cleaver or a scalpel,” Smith told NPR when questioned about a potential ban. “And, you know, if you can solve the problem in a way that enables good things to get done and bad things to stop happening ... that does require a scalpel. This is young technology. It will get better. But the only way to make it better is actually to continue developing it. And the only way to continue developing it actually is to have more people using it.”

The two executives’ comments come as the EU considers a five-year ban on the use of facial recognition in public spaces. The EU’s proposal, which was leaked to the press last week and could change when announced officially, says a temporary ban would give governments and regulators time to assess the dangers of the technology.

Across the world, law enforcement and private enterprise are increasingly using facial recognition to identify people in public spaces. While proponents argue that the technology helps solve crimes, critics say its unchecked adoption undermines civil liberties and leads to increased discrimination due to algorithmic bias.

Facial recognition is a key technology used by the Chinese state in the repression of its Muslim Uighur minority, for example, and the country sells the same technology to other repressive regimes around the world. In the US the technology is increasingly used by the police via small contractors. A recent report from the New York Times shed light on a facial recognition system that can search 3 billion photos scraped from websites like Facebook without users’ consent, and is used by more than 600 local law enforcement agencies.

Pichai’s comments this week are particularly noteworthy as Google itself refuses to sell facial recognition to customers (citing fears of misuse and mass surveillance) but has not previously argued for a ban. Writing in an editorial for The Financial Times on Monday, Pichai advocated for greater regulation of artificial intelligence.

“[T]here is no question in my mind that artificial intelligence needs to be regulated,” he wrote. “Companies such as ours cannot just build promising new technology and let market forces decide how it will be used.”

Facial recognition has become portable, fitting into products like these sunglasses worn by Chinese police officers.
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

So far, the market is indeed dictating the rules, with big tech companies taking different stances on the issue. Microsoft sells facial recognition but has self-imposed limits, for example, like letting police use the technology in jails but not on the street, and not selling to immigration services. Amazon has eagerly pursued police partnerships, particularly though its video Ring doorbells, which critics say gives law enforcement access to a massive crowdsourced surveillance network.

In the US, at least, it seems unlikely that a nationwide ban could be introduced. Some cities in America like San Francisco and Berkley have independently banned the technology, but the White House has cited such measures as examples of regulatory overreach. The government has indicated that it wants to take a hands-off approach to the regulation of AI, including facial recognition, in the name of spurring innovation.