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Tech companies want facial recognition laws, but maybe not this one

Lawmakers introduced legislation that would put an indefinite ban on facial recognition for police use. Not everyone's a fan.

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Tech companies that want facial recognition regulations haven't been quick to back a bill that would impose an indefinite ban on the surveillance tool. 

CNET

When Amazon and Microsoft announced they were putting a pause on providing facial recognition to police departments, the move also came with a request to Congress: Pass regulations to ensure ethical use of the technology. 

The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act is the first facial recognition legislation introduced since that request came, and the companies calling for regulations have remained silent on the proposal. 

The bill, introduced June 25 by Sens. Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley and Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Pramila Jayapal, would put an indefinite ban on facial recognition use by police, until Congress passes a law to lift the moratorium. Civil rights advocates consider it an effective stop to technology that research shows has racial bias and that can have dire consequences when used by law enforcement

Tech companies understand those concerns, listing human rights issues and ethical questions when they announced their own moratoriums on providing facial recognition to law enforcement.

On June 11, Microsoft said its moratorium for police departments would last until Congress passed a law "grounded in human rights," while a day earlier, Amazon imposed a pause for one year in the hope this would give lawmakers "enough time to implement appropriate rules." 

When members of Congress introduced their national moratorium bill, Amazon remained silent on the legislation. The company didn't respond to multiple requests from CNET for comment.

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CEO Jeff Bezos told reporters in September 2019 that Amazon's public policy team was working on its own facial recognition legislation to propose to lawmakers. But details of what the bill would do haven't been disclosed. 

Microsoft said it supports national legislation, but the company declined to comment on the bill proposing a national moratorium for police use. 

"It's time for a national law that governs police use of facial recognition technology, and we're encouraged that Congress is putting forth legislative proposals to protect people's rights," Microsoft said in a statement. "We've long advocated for federal legislation to govern whether and how this technology should be used, so that strong rules will endure." 

Though Microsoft doesn't provide facial recognition to any police departments, it has attempted to sell its facial recognition services to the Drug Enforcement Agency, which has its own surveillance program.   

A Microsoft employee had a hand in passing Washington state's facial recognition law, which wouldn't limit sales of the technology to law enforcement agencies. It does have regulations that require training and transparency on how facial recognition is used on the public. 

IBM, which pulled out of the facial recognition market on June 8 citing "violations of basic human rights and freedoms," didn't respond to requests for comment on the legislation. 

Axon, formerly known as Taser, is the leading supplier of body cameras to police departments. It had been working on facial recognition up until June 2019, when an independent ethics board it created raised concerns about bias, inaccuracies and privacy. 

Though the company is against facial recognition for police as the technology currently stands, it's not ruling out using the tech when it advances. 

"We are currently reading the proposed legislation," Axon said in a statement. "We believe face matching technology does deserve further research and should not be deployed until the technology is more accurate."

While other companies have been backing away from facial recognition for police use, providers like Clearview AI have doubled down on it, pushing for law enforcement to use its technology. The company, which has drawn notoriety for scraping Instagram and other social media sites for photos, declined to comment on the moratorium proposal. 

It's joined by companies like DataWorks Plus, a facial recognition provider for police departments in Michigan, California and Pennsylvania. 

At a Detroit City Council hearing on Monday, the city's police chief, James Craig, said that the department's facial recognition provided by DataWorks Plus misidentifies people in about 96% of searches, requiring detectives and analysts to parse the results.    

Todd Pastorini, executive vice president of DataWorks Plus, said he doesn't support a national moratorium on facial recognition for police. 

"The technology properly used is a valuable asset for law enforcement and the public in general," Pastorini said. "If I had crimes committed against myself or my family, where faces were taken, I would hope that law enforcement would sufficiently use technology to bring individuals to justice."