Documents reveal Microsoft pitched facial recognition tech to drug enforcement feds

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Microsoft President Brad Smith speaking at Seattle’s Town Hall in September. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Microsoft has long cast itself as a moral authority on facial recognition, calling for federal regulation of the technology and pledging not to sell it to police. But emails obtained by the ACLU and released Wednesday show Microsoft repeatedly pitched its facial recognition software to the federal government.

Emails from 2017 and 2018 reveal Microsoft pitched the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on its facial recognition technology and got the agency to pilot it. Microsoft hosted DEA officials for several demos of the product at the company’s office in Virginia, according to the ACLU.

Last week, Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company does not supply facial recognition tech to any police departments in the U.S. and promised that moratorium will continue in the absence of a federal law governing the technology. The announcement followed similar moves by Microsoft competitors. Amazon paused sales of its Rekognition software to law enforcement for one year, after IBM dropped sales of the technology altogether.

The decisions were influenced by a nationwide racial justice movement protesting police violence and putting pressure on tech companies that supply products to law enforcement agencies.

“It’s important to see what IBM has done,” Smith said. “It is important to recognize what Amazon has done. It is obviously similar to what we are doing. But if all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those that are not prepared to take a stand, we won’t necessarily serve the national interests or the lives of the black and African American people of this nation well. We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella echoed Smith on Tuesday, telling a group of computer vision researchers that the moratoriums could have negative consequences long-term if U.S. lawmakers fail to enact regulations governing the use of the technology.

“We need to use this moment to advocate for strong national law, otherwise we’ll see responsible companies leaving the market and others stepping in,” Nadella said, addressing the Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR) in a prerecorded conversation Tuesday morning.

Last year, Smith said Microsoft refused to sell its software to a California law enforcement agency that wanted to run face scans “anytime they pulled anyone over.” Microsoft also wouldn’t allow an unnamed city in another country to use the technology on cameras in public spaces.

But the emails obtained by the ACLU paint a more complicated portrait of Microsoft’s facial recognition strategy. Microsoft may be more selective about selling the technology to law enforcement agencies than its rivals but that doesn’t mean the company is staying out of the business altogether.

The ACLU obtained the emails as part of a lawsuit against the DEA and FBI over a lack of transparency in the government’s use of facial recognition technology.

The DEA did not ultimately purchase Microsoft’s product as of November 2018, according to the emails.

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