London's police will be testing out live facial recognition technology on Christmas shoppers today and tomorrow. The Metropolitan Police Service said the test, which will cover areas in Soho, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, is part of its ongoing trial of the technology. When people pass through the area covered by the cameras, their images are streamed directly to the police facial recognition system database. This database contains a watch list of offenders wanted by the police and courts for various offences. The system measures the structure of each face, including distance between eyes, nose, mouth and jaw, to create facial data.
After a hellish year of tech scandals, even government-averse executives have started professing their openness to legislation. But Microsoft president Brad Smith took it one step further on Thursday, asking governments to regulate the use of facial-recognition technology to ensure it does not invade personal privacy or become a tool for discrimination or surveillance. Tech companies are often forced to choose between social responsibility and profits, but the consequences of facial recognition are too dire for business as usual, Smith said. "We believe that the only way to protect against this race to the bottom is to build a floor of responsibility that supports healthy market competition," he said in a speech at the Brookings Institution. "We must ensure that the year 2024 doesn't look like a page from the novel 1984."
Facial-recognition technology has become deeply integrated in tech giants' products, whether the key feature for unlocking Apple's iPhone X or identifying people in Google's photos app. In his latest missive, Mr. Smith tackles the potential "sobering" uses for facial-recognition technology, such as creating a database of everyone who attended a political rally or governmental tracking of residents as they move about without their permission or knowledge. "The only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself," Mr. Smith wrote in a blog post scheduled for Friday. But he also challenged the notion companies could regulate themselves alone. Change won't occur, he said, if a few companies adopt new standards while rivals ignore them.
In December, Microsoft President Brad Smith urged lawmakers to set rules on facial-recognition technology to prevent a privacy-threatening "race to the bottom." Now the company has joined a legislative fight in its home state against rules it says would be too restrictive. Microsoft is pushing back on a bill sponsored by a bipartisan group of Washington state lawmakers that would ban local and state governments from using facial recognition until certain conditions are met, including a report by the state attorney general certifying that systems in use are equally accurate for people of differing races, skin tones, ethnicities, genders, or age. Microsoft has endorsed a different bipartisan privacy bill, modeled on European data laws. It contains less restrictive facial-recognition rules, which closely mirror Smith's proposals from December.
Over the past year, Silicon Valley has been grappling with the way it handles our data, our elections, and our speech. Now it's got a new concern: our faces. In just the past few weeks, critics assailed Amazon for selling facial recognition technology to local police departments, and Facebook for how it gained consent from Europeans to identify people in their photos. Microsoft has endured its own share of criticism lately around the ethical uses of its technology, as employees protested a contract under which US Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses Microsoft's cloud-computing service. Microsoft says that contract did not involve facial recognition.