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Microsoft hires ex-US Attorney General Eric Holder in facial recognition inquiry

Holder will investigate a company Microsoft invested in, to determine whether it violated the tech giant's ethics around surveillance.

Former US Attorney General Eric Holder
Former US Attorney General Eric Holder
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Microsoft has hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether an Israeli company the tech giant invested in violated Microsoft's ethics regarding facial recognition technology. Facial recognition tools made by the company, AnyVision, had reportedly been used to surveil Palestinians.

A Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement Saturday that Holder's team of former federal prosecutors "will move quickly, reviewing documents and conducting on the ground interviews with AnyVision employees and others to ensure a full and thorough investigation."

Holder's hiring was reported earlier by NBC News. An October report by the news outlet said facial recognition technology created by AnyVision had been used in a secret military effort to conduct surveillance of Palestinians in the West Bank. NBC said the company had denied the assertion and had called the report inaccurate, and that the Israel Defense Forces had declined to comment.

Microsoft's venture capital arm made an investment in AnyVision in June, as part of a $74 million Series A funding round, according to NBC News. The funding deal stipulated that AnyVision had to abide by Microsoft's ethical principles, one of which says the tech giant "will advocate for safeguards for people's democratic freedoms in law enforcement surveillance scenarios."

The news of the inquiry comes as tech workers have begun speaking out about the moral dimensions of their employers' activities.

In February, a group of Microsoft employees called on the company to ditch its multimillion dollar HoloLens contract with the US Army, saying they refused to create "technology for warfare and oppression." CEO Satya Nadella pushed back, saying Microsoft "made a principled decision that we're not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy." 

In 2018, Google pulled out of the competition for a US Defense Department cloud computing contract worth as much as $10 billion, saying the project might conflict with its principles for ethical use of artificial intelligence. That decision came after thousands of Google employees had protested the company's involvement in another US government project, a drone initiative called Project Maven.

In June, Microsoft quietly took down a massive database that was used to train facial recognition systems and had been a part of an AI project to recognize celebrities. The database, though, had also been linked to China's efforts to crack down on ethnic Muslims in the country. The dataset "was intended for academic purposes," Microsoft said in a statement at the time. "It was run by an employee that is no longer with Microsoft and has since been removed."

In response to a request for comment on the Holder inquiry, AnyVision provided the following statement, which refers to Holder's team at law firm Covington & Burling:

"In recent weeks, there have been a number of inaccurate reports on AnyVision technology. We proactively encouraged Microsoft to conduct an audit of our company and look forward to engaging with the team at Covington & Burling LLP. Ethics, privacy and data integrity are the foundational principles upon which our technology and our company were built. We look forward to the audit validating our high standards and continuing to provide a technology for good."  

Originally published Nov. 16, 2:19 p.m. PT.
Update, 5:13 p.m.: Adds statement from Microsoft.