Emails show Microsoft was pushing to sell its face recognition tech to a US law enforcement agency

Barney Wallcott / June 16,2020

After Microsoft cast itself to take a principled stand on facial recognition technology calling for a federal regulation only days ago, emails obtained by rights group American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), on Wednesday, revealed that it was actually pushing to sell its facial recognition technology to the US’ Drug Enforcement Administration, as recently as 2017. ACLU obtained the emails as part of a lawsuit it filed in October 2019, against the DEA and FBI over the secrecy shrouding their use of face recognition technology.

The DEA, as ACLU pointed out, has had a history of surveilling US citizens and is infamous for its racially-disparate practices. Most recently, it received permission from the Department of Justice that allows it to secretly surveil individuals protesting police brutality in the US. A 2009 analysis had found that Black and Latinx people compromised 72% of all DEA arrests, despite the fact that they make up only 31% of the population, ACLU noted.

The emails, dated September 2017 through December 2018, show that the company repeatedly tried to persuade the DEA to purchase the technology. The company even hosted the DEA at its Virginia office to demo its facial recognition technology, which the DEA later piloted. From the emails, it appears that the DEA hadn’t purchased the technology as of November 2018 because it was concerned about criticisms levelled at the FBI over its use of face recognition technology. However, it is unclear if Microsoft sold its technology to any other federal law enforcement agency.

“Even after belatedly promising not to sell face surveillance tech to police last week, Microsoft has refused to say whether it would sell the technology to federal agencies like the DEA,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “It is troubling enough to learn that Microsoft tried to sell a dangerous technology to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration given that agency’s record spearheading the racist drug war, and even more disturbing now that Attorney General Bill Barr has reportedly expanded this very agency’s surveillance authorities, which could be abused to spy on people protesting police brutality.”

What is Microsoft’s actual stand on facial recognition?

The revelation also raises questions on Microsoft’s actual stand on facial recognition. The company’s president Brad Smith was calling for “thoughtful government regulation and for the development of norms around acceptable uses” of facial recognition, in a blog post dated July 13, 2018 — when the company was also pushing to sell its tech to the DEA. Moreover, when Microsoft announced that it had decided to stop the sale of its facial recognition technology to the police in the US, it did not specify if it would stop its sale to other federal law enforcement agencies such as the DEA and FBI.

As the company has been calling for regulation around facial recognition, it has been lobbying for state facial recognition regulations, at the same time.  In March this year, the state of Washington passed a bill regulating the use of the facial recognition technology, which barred states and local government agencies from using facial recognition systems without a warrant or court order. The Bill’s main sponsor, Senator Joe Nguyen, is an employee at Microsoft, which had unsurprisingly supported the Bill. Rights group American Civil Liberties Union had strongly opposed the Bill, because it had no moratorium period on the technology, and lacked any meaningful accountability or enforcement measures, among other things.

The protests in the US against racial discrimination have forced companies to take a stand against facial recognition, especially because the technology is known to be biased, particularly against people of colour and other underrepresented communities. Amazon’s facial recognition tool Rekognition, for instance, misidentified 28 members of Congress as criminals. Research, in general, has shown that facial recognition tools are worse at detecting and identify faces of darker-skinned people, thereby creating ample room for discrimination and persecution.

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