Microsoft pledged not to sell facial recognition software to police on Thursday, following similar announcements from Amazon and IBM that reflect the growing scrutiny of law enforcement technology in the U.S. over the past two weeks.
Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company is not currently supplying facial recognition tech to any police forces in the U.S. during a Washington Post virtual event and promised that moratorium will continue in the absence of a federal law governing the technology.
“It’s important to see what IBM has done,” he said. “It is important to recognize what Amazon has done. It is obviously similar to what we are doing. But if all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those that are not prepared to take a stand, we won’t necessarily serve the national interests or the lives of the black and African American people of this nation well. We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone.”
Previously: Is Amazon’s facial recognition moratorium a victory for police reformers or just good PR?
Congress is under new pressure to take up police reform and facial recognition regulation from activists protesting in cities across the country in the wake of Georg Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. The same pressure is compelling big tech companies to rethink the technologies they develop for law enforcement.
“Our take is that these ‘moratoria’ are largely public relations stunts, but they are also a testament to the fact that Big Tech is realizing that facial recognition is politically toxic,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital advocacy group Fight for the Future. “We urge lawmakers to do their jobs and enact policies to immediately ban the use of facial recognition for surveillance purposes.”
Amazon said Wednesday it will stop selling its Rekognition software to police in the U.S. for one year in the hopes that Congress will take up the issue during that time period. The announcement came two days after IBM said it would wind down its facial recognition products in response to the national racial justice movement. On Thursday, Apple announced a $100 million racial equity project that will invest in education, employment, and economic justice.
Big tech companies were quick to issue statements of solidarity with the protestors but critics said the words were empty without meaningful action behind them. The announcements over the past few days appear to be in response to growing pressure on technology companies to address longstanding racial inequities.
“This is a moment in time that really calls on us to listen more, to learn more, and most importantly to do more,” Smith said.