Big Tech is social distancing from facial recognition, sort of

IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon announced they are moving away from the tool -- but let’s look at the fine print.


June 12, 2020

This week, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft announced they were scrapping or pausing their facial recognition work with police.

Those decisions are a win for skeptics who have pointed out racial bias in facial recognition systems — but when you look at the fine print, they aren’t as big of a step forward as they might sound.

IBM was the first domino

The company said Monday that it’s dropping its facial recognition work in “pursuit of justice and racial equity.” IBM’s move is the farthest-reaching of all — it won’t develop or research facial recognition tech, period.

“The symbolic nature of this is important,” one researcher told the Associated Press. But IBM’s facial recognition efforts were already minimal, so as the AP put it, the decision is “unlikely to affect its bottom line.”

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Meanwhile, IBM still seems to be supplying police departments with crime-predicting AI — another tool that has come under fire for racial bias.

Then Bezos pressed pause

The company announced that it would put a 1-year moratorium on “police use” of its facial recognition software, encouraging Congress to pass regulation in the meantime.

Microsoft’s order also won’t last forever: It won’t supply facial recognition to police until “we have a national law in place, grounded in human rights,” according to company president Brad Smith.

Microsoft has previously supported legislation that would allow police departments to use facial recognition with some limits.

But as The Washington Post notes, the announcements from Amazon and Microsoft apply only to police use of the technology: Neither company has mentioned whether it will contract with federal agencies, like ICE or the Defense Department, that regularly use facial recognition.

Amazon Ring’s, meanwhile, is still an active surveillance tool for police.

Facial recognition isn’t going anywhere

Bottom line: Police aren’t likely to lack access to this tech anytime soon.

More than 45 companies offer real-time facial recognition, and some of the most powerful of them — like Clearview AI — are forging ahead.

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