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It somehow took the George Floyd protests to get Big Tech to pull back on facial recognition tech

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As a result of all these protests, companies are starting to realize that people are angry, so they’re taking measures to appease that anger. For the most part, these measures have almost entirely benefited only African Americans – with one notable exception.

Facial recognition AI is universally considered concerning and a threat to everyone’s privacy and civil liberties. That said, as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has repeatedly suggested, facial recognition technologies disproportionately misidentify African Americans, largely due to insufficient training of these AI systems.

As a result, IBM announced halting its facial recognition tech entirely and indefinitely. The company has been a leader in this industry, and its pulling out will not be without consequences to the overall advancement of the technology.

IBM’s CEO Arvind Krishna wrote a letter to Congress dated June 8th addressing Senators Karen Bass, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Hakeem Jeffries, and Jerrold Nadler.

Arvind mentioned the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. He stated, as his suggestions: “Police reform – new federal rules should hold police more accountable for misconduct,” “Responsible technology policies – technology can increase transparency and help police protect communities but must not promote discrimination or racial injustice,” “Expanding opportunity – training and education for in-demand skills is key to expanding economic opportunity for communities of color,” “P-TECH,” and “Pell Grants.”

The second point from that list is what we’re all here for today.

“IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software. IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any other purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency.”

A few days later, Amazon pulled a “me too” and followed suit, only in Amazon’s case, they will only pause facial recognition for one year.

“We’re implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology. We will continue to allow organizations like Thorn, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics to use Amazon Rekognition to help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families.

We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge. We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

Microsoft’s President Brad Smith then made an even less serious effort: “We will not sell facial recognition technology to police departments in the United States until we have a national law in place, grounded in human rights, that will govern this technology.”

Microsoft also noted that they have not previously sold facial recognition technology to police departments (presumably strictly in the United States) and that they’ve backed legislation in California that would allow police use of facial recognition albeit with some restrictions.

“The bottom line for us is to protect the human rights of people as this technology is deployed,” said Smith.

While IBM’s wording specifically encompasses all uses of facial recognition, both Microsoft and Amazon used extremely specific wording that their moratoriums only apply to police use of facial recognition technology. This means that all other agencies are exempt from this promise.

It’s also worth noting that while all three companies are at least partially motivated by pandering and PR, IBM is the only one that has made a genuine, complete effort to shut down facial recognition due to its harms that vastly outweigh any benefits.

Whereas Microsoft and Amazon essentially only put their tech on pause until ethical and legislative regulation comes out, and even then only for police use. It’s difficult to take their move seriously as anything more than a pandering PR move.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called on federal and state lawmakers to permanently ban police use of facial recognition altogether.

This comes after police body cams were embedded with facial recognition technology, turning them into high definition constant surveillance cameras with an audio feed, all under the police’s control.

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