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Microsoft’s Brad Smith wants governments to regulate facial recognition technology

Facial recognition technology could be abused in ways that would undermine civil liberties if governments fail to regulate it, Microsoft has warned.

Brad Smith, the software giant’s president, has called on Congress to establish a bipartisan, expert commission to inform American regulation of the technology.

“We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology,” Smith writes in a blogpost.

“As a general principle, it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government.”

In recent years, technology firms have made strides in developing facial recognition software, prompting adoption by police forces and immigration officials, as well as private companies.

But the technology is far from perfect. As Smith acknowledges, research has shown it is more likely to misidentify women and people of colour, raising fears that it could subject marginalised groups to unwarranted police attention.

In the UK, the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the technology. Denham stated earlier this year: “For the use of FRT to be legal, the police forces must have clear evidence to demonstrate that the use of FRT in public spaces is effective in resolving the problem that it aims to address, and that no less intrusive technology or methods are available to address that problem.”

A member of staff from Liberty who observed the Met Police’s use of the technology at Notting Hill Carnival last summer claimed it led to at least 35 false positives, five people being unduly stopped and one wrongful arrest.

The adoption of facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies is of particular concern to Smith. He asks readers to “imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge. Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech.”

The Home Office unveiled its long-awaited biometrics strategy last month. It was conceived to guide the adoption of the technology by law enforcement and immigration agencies. But the Biometrics Commissioner, Paul Wiles, described it as “short-sighted”, while Norman Lamb, the chair of the science and technology select committee, said it “fails to do justice to the critical issues” the technology presents.

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