Microsoft President Brad Smith Calls for Facial Recognition Regulations

December 7, 2018

By Chloe Aiello

After a year of reckoning for big technology, Microsoft President Brad Smith is urging his peers to learn from their mistakes and improve their privacy protections ー and for governments to impose regulations that make sure they follow through.

"Change is not easy; it's, in fact, painful. But it can be done. And when it is done, everybody is better in my view. The public is better, computer users are better, the tech sector is better ー once you make it through that process," Smith told Cheddar on Friday.

Smith's comments follow Microsoft's ($MSFT) call for government regulation of facial recognition technology. In a blog post published Thursday, Smith called on government officials to act now, or "risk waking up five years from now to find that facial recognition services have spread in ways that exacerbate societal issues."

"By that time, these challenges will be much more difficult to bottle back up," Smith wrote. "In particular, we don’t believe that the world will be best served by a commercial race to the bottom, with tech companies forced to choose between social responsibility and market success."

Microsoft wants to prevent that trade-off in facial recognition technology, especially given the sheer breadth of its potential to harm.

In his post, Smith identified some of the positive applications of the fledgling technology. Among them are the capabilities to identify missing persons and diagnose genetic diseases. But there are some serious risks, too. In its current state of development, Smith writes, the technology can encourage biased decision-making and invasion of privacy. On a broader scale, mass surveillance by a government entity could represent a serious encroachment on democratic freedoms.

These applications aren't too far off. Police in New Delhi, India, tested the technology to locate missing children ー and found 3,000 in four days. The U.S. Secret Service has plans to test it for use around the White House to identify “subjects of interest” who could pose a threat, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

To get ahead of potential risks, Smith recommended a two-pronged approach to facial recognition legislation that leans heavily on transparency and bias testing. He emphasized that regulation will probably have to start small on a statewide level or in just one country and then spread globally.

"Over the next five years, I think the world deserves a global conversation about ethics for artificial intelligence and ethics for facial recognition ... the more commonality we can build around the world, I think the better off the world is going to be, and I think we should be a force for this conversation," Smith said.

Smith's comments, and similar calls for corporate responsibility by Apple's ($APPL) Tim Cook and Salesforce's Marc Benioff, come as Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook ($FB) is taking fire for privacy and oversight blunders over the past year.

But mistakes like the ones Facebook has made don't have to be fatal, Smith said. Smith also said Microsoft has gone through its own "school of hard knocks" ー particularly during its anti-trust fight in the 1990s.

"People start off being so comfortable with themselves, so convinced that what they are doing is right for everybody else. And then there comes a point when you realize that other people look at you different from the way you see yourself. You have to see yourself the way others do," Smith said.

"This is an opportunity for us to get it right, so let's pull ourselves together and start to be more proactive," Smith said.

For full interview click here.