Biometrics Controversy: Google, Microsoft Execs Differ Over Proposed Facial Recognition Moratorium

Biometrics Controversy: Google, Microsoft Execs Differ Over Proposed Facial Recognition Moratorium

With the tech industry facing the possibility of a multi-year moratorium on biometric facial recognition in the European Union, the executives of two of the world’s biggest companies have come down on different sides of the debate.

The CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, Sundar Pichai, suggested that he was in favor of the moratorium at a conference in Brussels this week. “I think it is important that governments and regulations tackle it sooner rather than later and give a framework for it,” he said, adding that a “waiting period” could be implemented to make time for the careful consideration of how facial recognition could be used.

The comments concern a leaked document outlining European Union authorities’ plans for a potential three- to five-year ban on the use of facial recognition across the region. The legislation echoes the efforts of regulators in the US as well, where the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform this week held its third hearing on the technology as its members consider a bill that would restrict the use of facial recognition, though an outright ban or moratorium seems less likely.

Meanwhile, the President of Microsoft, Brad Smith, offered a different take on the EU’s plans, saying that it would be better to “address this problem with a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver.” Smith cited the example of law enforcement agencies’ use of facial recognition to help locate missing children as an illustration of the positive benefits that the technology already offers today.

“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.

Many in the law enforcement sector have expressed their enthusiasm for facial recognition as a policing tool, and it has proven increasingly popular in border control and adjacent areas. But elected officials have been compelled to grapple with intensifying media scrutiny and advocacy groups campaigning over potential privacy and civil rights violations stemming from the technology’s use, as well as a growing body of research that has demonstrated widespread gender and racial biases present in many facial recognition algorithms.

For their part, Google and Microsoft have both been vocal about the need for regulation and ethical principles outlining how this kind of technology has been used, with Microsoft’s Smith having previously made comparisons to the kind of dystopian surveillance imagined by George Orwell. Presumably Smith still wants that kind of regulation, but feels an outright ban is a step too far.

Source: Reuters

January 22, 2020 – by Alex Perala