Now more than ever, tech companies are under immense scrutiny for their role in enabling police departments to surveil everyday people in the United States. In an attempt to allay concerns, Microsoft president Brad Smith told The Washington Post that the company would not sell facial recognition to the police in the U.S. — at least not for now.
Microsoft has studied the issue for the past two years, according to Smith, and has worked on developing a "principled stance." Based on that position, Smith said, "We do not sell facial recognition technology to the police departments in the United States today."
The comments arrive after Amazon announced that it would place a one-year moratorium on the use of Rekognition, its own facial recognition system, by police departments. The tech giant has been ferociously condemned — and rightfully so — for posturing as progressive during the Black Lives Matter protests all the while police departments in the country rely on its facial recognition software to track and profile protesters. While Smith's comments sound a little more sincere than Amazon, there's a slight problem with his "principled stance."
Holding off on surveillance — Smith's choice to use "today" in his statement is key and shows that despite the technology being repeatedly criticized for its overwhelming potential to be misused and abused, Microsoft isn't completely opposed to the notion of facial recognition. It's relying on a future and as-yet-unspecified federal law to conduct business.
The problem with Smith's position is that despite the existence of federal and state laws in the United States, civil liberties are constantly compromised and violated. The idea that a federal law will magically keep police departments from abusing facial recognition technology against unsuspecting individuals is a dangerously naive notion.
All eyes on Congress — Of note, Smith added that the onus of protecting individual privacy should not rest on tech companies only; Congress, too, has a moral obligation to take action.
"We need to use this moment to pursue a national law to govern facial recognition that is grounded in the protection of human rights," Smith explained. "I think it is 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 [...] 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."
Naiveté will destroy us — The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect people from "unreasonable searches and seizures" but a cursory glance at police conduct and searches will show how little regard there is for that stipulation. The same issue easily surfaces with facial recognition technology and there is little to no proof that a federal law would instantly protect individual privacy.
It's this kind of naiveté emanating from the tech world that demonstrates just how wide the chasm is between the presidents of these massive companies and someone in, say, Minneapolis. If Smith truly grasped the crux of the issue here — how the surveillance state safeguards its interests only — he would ditch the technology altogether and side with civilians.
That, though, most likely won't happen in this lifetime. Because if Microsoft doesn't build the technology, it knows someone else will. That's tantamount to leaving money on the table. And no executive wants to have to answer to shareholders when they ask why that was allowed to happen.