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Microsoft President’s Dire Facial Recognition Warning


Microsoft President Brad Smith warned this week that if governments don’t rein in on the public use of facial recognition software, the year 2024 could become as dystopian as the fictional year 1984 from the George Orwell novel, 1984.

Perils of Facial Recognition

Technology companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon, as well as multiple start-ups have already started to deploy facial recognition software for uses that may seem more or less harmless at the moment: photo tagging, face filters and Face ID-like biometric systems to unlock devices.

However, as reported by Recode, during the Web Summit tech conference in Portugal Smith warned that in the future, the uses of facial recognition software could be much less harmless. He pointed out that retailers, for instance, will be able to track every move a customer makes within the store, including what goods they picked up, what they purchased and when they were there last. However, even that will be nothing in comparison to the future surveillance capabilities of governments.

“For the first time, the world is on the threshold of technology that would give a government the ability to follow anyone anywhere and everyone everywhere. It could know exactly where you are going, where you have been and where you were yesterday as well. And this has profound potential ramifications for even just the fundamental civil liberties on which democratic societies rely,” Smith said.

“Before we wake up and find that the year 2024 looks like the book 1984, let’s figure out what kind of world we want to create, and what are the safeguards and what are the limitations of both companies and governments for the use of this technology.”

Earlier this year, Smith called for governments to regulate the use of facial recognition technology so that user’s rights aren’t constantly violated in the future by corporations and government agencies.

What makes things worse is that the technology itself is still biased and far from perfect. There have been reports of Amazon Rekognition and London police’s facial recognition technology being imperfect, to say the least. However, despite these significant error rates, law enforcement agencies continue deployment, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also started encouraging airlines to adopt facial recognition software at airports.

This could put innocent people in situations where authorities might confuse them for armed and dangerous criminals just because of an erroneous match made by the facial recognition software. Smith warned that facial recognition technology is most dangerous when it’s believed to be perfect because governments may no longer verify the facial recognition results at that point and completely rely on them to identify criminals.

Smith believes governments should adopt a strong framework for how it should use facial recognition in a way that doesn’t infringe on people’s rights. Retailers may also need regulation that requires asking for customers’ consent letting facial recognition software can track them in-store, he argues.

Microsoft’s President previously recommended that the U.S. Congress create an independent commission that can evaluate the dangers of facial recognition technology and propose regulation frameworks. A similar expert commission was used after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Since then, 28 such expert commissions were formed on various issues, such as protecting children in disasters or the future of the U.S. army.

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