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Google vows not to sell its facial recognition technology for now

The search giant says it needs to work through “important technology and policy questions” first.

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. 

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google will refrain from selling facial recognition products until it can come up with policies that prevent abuse of the controversial technology, the search giant said in a blog post on Thursday.

The tech giant is working with other groups to identify issues surrounding facial recognition, which allows a connected camera to compare a photo of a person to a database for identification.

"Like many technologies with multiple uses, facial recognition merits careful consideration to ensure its use is aligned with our principles and values, and avoids abuse and harmful outcomes," Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs, wrote. The comments came as the search giant co-hosted the AI for Social Good Summit in Bangkok.

Google's decision to hold off on commercializing facial recognition technology follows blowback at other tech companies that are designing the cutting-edge services. Amazon and Microsoft employees have protested over concerns that their companies' relationships with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and law enforcement entities could involve the technology. (In July, Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company wasn't supporting any government use of facial recognition and last week called on the governments worldwide to regulate the technology.)

Outside the tech industry, Taylor Swift drew criticism on Wednesday for reportedly using facial recognition software at a concert to identify the pop star's known stalkers.

Facial recognition can be used for benign applications, such as unlocking your phone, and has potential to help in situations such as missing persons cases. Still, Google said it's important to better understand the implications of the technology before offering it to other organizations.

"This is a strong first step," Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said in a statement. "We will continue to put Google's feet to the fire to make sure it doesn't build or sell a face surveillance product that violates civil and human rights. We also renew our call on Amazon and Microsoft to not provide dangerous face surveillance to the government.

Neither Amazon nor Microsoft immediately responded to requests for comment.

Google's announcement also comes after the search giant's employees have protested its use of artificial intelligence. Earlier this year, the company faced resignations over a contract with the Pentagon for Maven, a project that uses AI for drone footage analysis. Google decided not to renew the contract, and CEO Sundar Pichai released the company's AI Principles, a set of guidelines that outlines how the company will and won't use the technology. 

The search giant has also been scrutinized for how its AI could be used in a controversial project called Dragonfly, reportedly an effort to bring a censored search engine to China. Google shut down its search engine in the country eight years ago, citing the "totalitarian" policies of the government. When Pichai testified before Congress earlier this week, he told lawmakers the company has "no plans" to launch a search product there at this time.

Update, 11:46 a.m. PT: Adds more background. 

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