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As facial recognition technology becomes pervasive, Microsoft (yes, Microsoft) issues a call for regulation

Technology companies have a privacy problem. They’re terribly good at invading ours and terribly negligent at protecting their own. And with the push by technologists to map, identify and index our physical as well as virtual presence with biometrics like face and fingerprint scanning, the increasing digital surveillance of our physical world is causing some of the companies that stand to benefit the most to call out to government to provide some guidelines on how they can use the incredibly powerful tools they’ve created. That’s what’s behind today’s call from Microsoft President Brad Smith for government to start thinking about how to oversee the facial recognition technology that’s now at the disposal of companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple and government security and surveillance services across the country and around the world. In what companies have framed as a quest to create “better,” more efficient and more targeted services for consumers, they have tried to solve the problem of user access by moving to increasingly passive (for the user) and intrusive (by the company) forms of identification — culminating in features like Apple’s Face ID and the frivolous filters that Snap overlays over users’ selfies. Those same technologies are also being used by security and police forces in ways that have gotten technology companies into trouble with consumers or their own staff. Amazon has been called to task for its work with law enforcement, Microsoft’s own technologies have been used to help identify immigrants at the border (indirectly aiding in the separation of families and the virtual and physical lockdown of America against most forms of immigration) and Google faced an internal company revolt over the facial recognition work it was doing for the Pentagon. Smith posits this nightmare scenario: Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge. Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech. Imagine the stores of a shopping mall using facial recognition to share information with each other about each shelf that you browse and product you buy, without asking you first. This has long been the stuff of science fiction and popular movies – like “Minority Report,” “Enemy of the State” and even “1984” – but now it’s on the verge of becoming possible. What’s impressive about this is the intimation that it isn’t already happening (and that Microsoft isn’t enabling it). Across the world, governments are deploying these tools right now as ways to control their populations (the ubiquitous surveillance state that China has assembled, and is investing billions of dollars to upgrade, is just the most obvious example). In this moment when corporate innovation and state power are merging in ways that consumers are only just beginning to fathom, executives who have to answer to a buying public are now pleading for government to set up some rails. Late capitalism is weird.

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