Microsoft has said it rejected a request from law enforcement authorities in California to use its facial recognition technology in police and car cameras, reports Reuters .
Speaking at an event at Stanford University, Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company was concerned that technology would disproportionately affect women and minorities. Previous research has shown that because facial recognition technology is mainly trained on white and male faces, it has higher error rates for other people.
"Every time they arrested someone, they wanted to do a facial exam," said Smith of the law enforcement agency. "We said that this technology is not your answer."
Facial recognition has become a controversial issue for technology companies in recent years, partly because of their biases, but also because of their potential for authoritarian surveillance.
Amazon has been repeatedly criticized for selling technology to law enforcement, and faced rejection from both employees and shareholders. Meanwhile, Google says it refuses to completely sell facial recognition services because of its potential for abuse.
Microsoft has been one of the strongest voices in this debate, and has repeatedly called for federal regulation. "Move fast and break things" became a kind of mantra in Silicon Valley earlier this decade, "Smith wrote in an open letter earlier this year. "But if we move too fast with facial recognition, we may find that people's fundamental rights are being violated."
Speaking at Stanford this week, Smith said the company had also rejected an agreement to install facial recognition on cameras in the capital city of an unnamed country. He said that doing so would have suppressed freedom of assembly.
Activists concerned about the malicious uses of facial recognition often point to China as the worst example. The Chinese government has deployed large-scale facial recognition as part of its crackdown on the largely Muslim Uighur minority. Activists say the result has been a digital surveillance network of unprecedented scope, which can track individuals in a city and produce automatic warnings when Uyghurs gather.
But despite concerns, facial recognition is also becoming more common in the West, even if it is not part of a centralized system, as in China. The technology is being installed in airports, schools and retail stores, and is being adapted to existing surveillance systems.
Even Microsoft, which is openly debating the merits of this technology, is happy to sell it in places that some may find problematic.
Reuters notes that, speaking at Stanford, Smith said that although the company had refused to sell facial recognition to the police, it had provided it to a US prison "after the company concluded that the environment would be limited and that would improve security within the anonymous institution ".