Microsoft president Brad Smith has issued a more cautious response to the EU's proposed facial recognition ban than competitors. The Union is reportedly mulling a ban of up to five years for facial recognition tech in public areas while it works out how to prevent abuses. The tech has been found to be in use by several law enforcement agencies across the world, with concerns that it infringes citizen's human right to privacy.
However, at an event discussing his book at the Microsoft Center in Brussels, Smith indicated that he's reluctant to support the ban. The chief legal officer and president of Microsoft pointed out some of the positives of the tech, such as reuniting families with missing children.
“I'm really reluctant to say let's stop people from using technology in a way that will reunite families when it can help them do it,” he said. “The second thing I would say is you don't ban it if you actually believe there is a reasonable alternative that will enable us to, say, address this problem with a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver.”
It's not the first time Smith has referred to the example, perhaps because Microsoft was accused of doing the opposite by helping the US' ICE. He's referencing the use of the Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) by the Dehli Police to trace 3,000 missing children in just four days. But while that's an achievement, the use of the tech by Indian law enforcement is a concern to many Indian citizens. The tech is being deployed increasingly across airports, cafes, and more recently political rallies across India. One concern is that children are being used as positive press while it both tests and improves the system's capabilities.
Tech Advances Faster than Regulation
This is where the trouble may lie. Currently, how can Europe ensure that facial recognition is only used for good? We've previously seen governments secretly mass surveilling their population without their knowledge, tapping into global internet infrastructure and forcing companies to hand over data.
Well, Microsoft executive suggests that we'll only discover those answers by actively using the tech. “There is only one way at the end of the day to make better technology and that is to use it,” Smith said.
He has previously said Microsoft welcomes regulations surrounding the software and has turned down a law enforcement request to use the tech. At the same time, though, the tech giant has been accused of working with universities linked with the Chinese government to further the tech. Smith also says he has no issue passing the tech to governments, saying it's the purpose and lack of bias that's important.
In contrast, Google's Pichai was more supportive. At a seperate conference arranged by Bruegel in Brussels, he said it was important governments tackle it sooner rather than later and noted that it may require a “waiting period” while governments and tech companies think about how it's being used. Even so, the CEO also called for different rules for different sectors. One example given was self-driving cars, but there are other areas where facial recognition legislation could significantly slow progress.
Generally, it seems Smith and Pichai agree that the EU should be cautious in regulation, but the Google CEO is more concerned about the tech's widespread use. The question with facial recognition is always whether the good outweighs the bad, and Pichai seems to lean more towards the latter side.