During a remote interview at a Washington Post Live event this morning, the company's president Brad Smith said Microsoft has already been taking a "principled stand" on the proper use of this technology.
"As a result of the principles that we've put in place, we do not sell facial recognition technology to police departments in the United States today," Smith said. "But I do think this is a moment in time that really calls on us to listen more, to learn more and most importantly to do more. Given that, we've decided that we will not sell facial recognition technology to police departments in the United States until we have a national law in place, grounded in human rights, that will govern this technology."
Smith went on to say that Microsoft will be putting other "review factors" into place that will govern the use of this technology in "other scenarios."
Microsoft president @BradSmi says the company does not sell facial recognition software to police depts. in the U.S. today and will not sell the tools to police until there is a national law in place “grounded in human rights.” #postlive pic.twitter.com/lwxBLjrtZL
— Washington Post Live (@postlive) June 11, 2020
These comments come after the death of George Floyd has resulted in nationwide and global protests, leading to broader conversations around racial justice and law enforcement.
Microsoft's position is similar to Amazon's in its suggestion that the company will revisit the issue when stronger regulation is in place. (Although it's not referenced explicitly by either company, Congressional Democrats' proposed Justice in Policing Act would limit how police departments can use the technology.) It does not go as far as IBM, which said it will stop selling facial recognition tech entirely.
Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, responded to the news with a statement that reads, in part:
When even the makers of face recognition refuse to sell this surveillance technology because it is so dangerous, lawmakers can no longer deny the threats to our rights and liberties. Congress and legislatures nationwide must swiftly stop law enforcement use of face recognition, and companies like Microsoft should work with the civil rights community — not against it — to make that happen. This includes Microsoft halting its current efforts to advance legislation that would legitimize and expand the police use of facial recognition in multiple states nationwide. …
We welcome these companies finally taking action — as little and as late as it may be. We also urge these companies to work to forever shut the door on America’s sordid chapter of over-policing of Black and Brown communities, including the surveillance technologies that disproportionately harm them.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, is calling for an outright ban on the use of facial recognition technology by police for the purposes of mass surveillance.