Microsoft president says WA state privacy bill could impact facial recognition technology globally

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Microsoft President Brad Smith speaks at Seattle University. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Two of the top companies developing facial recognition software are in Washington state, where a bill that would regulate the technology is working its way through the legislature. Because Amazon and Microsoft would be regulated by the law, Microsoft President Brad Smith says its implications would impact billions of people living outside Washington’s borders.

Microsoft and Amazon both highlight the benefits of the facial recognition technology they offer — from diagnosing disease to locating missing children. But they diverge when it comes to the controversy surrounding the technology. Amazon has come under fire from the ACLU and others worried facial recognition can amplify racial bias. The use of Amazon’s technology by law enforcement agencies rankles civil rights activists.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is calling for government regulation of facial recognition. The company is endorsing one Washington state bill — SB 5376 — while opposing another. Speaking at a Seattle University event on Thursday night, Smith explained why Washington’s bill could lead to more oversight of facial recognition everywhere. It has to do with a provision of the bill that requires companies developing facial recognition to make their software available for third-party testing to detect issues like racial or gender bias.

“The theory is if we can get one jurisdiction, that is important enough, to pass a law that requires your company to make available its service for testing, then by definition it’s going to be available for testing around the world. So I’m actually quite bullish on the prospect that if this bill can get passed in Washington state, we could take a major step, not just for the 7 million people who live here, but the 7 billion people who live everywhere to help address this. “

If enacted, Washington’s bill would forbid government agencies from using the technology in ongoing surveillance of individuals in public spaces without a court order or life-or-death emergency. Companies that make the software would need to get consent from consumers before using it on them and Washington residents would need to be conspicuously notified when entering websites and physical spaces where facial recognition is in use.

Microsoft’s general counsel for privacy and regulatory affairs, Julie Brill, has been advocating for the bill in Olympia, Wash. At a hearing in January, she told lawmakers that the legislation took the best provisions from existing privacy laws in California and Europe.

“I believe it’s fitting that here in Washington state, where so many of the technologies that are changing the world are being developed, that the Washington state legislature has the historic opportunity to adopt privacy laws that will protect consumers in this state and help define privacy protection in ways that will influence privacy law throughout the United States,” she said during the hearing.

A few weeks before, Smith outlined his concerns about facial recognition technology and the need for regulation during a speech in Washington D.C.

“We have advocated for regulation,” Smith said Thursday. “We think that’s the only way to avoid a race to the bottom where just all standards are lost.”

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