After global protests about police violence against the black community, tech companies have stopped supporting cops with technology. Already, Amazon is to stop selling its Rekognition tech to law enforcement and IBM said it too was nixing its surveillance business given the tools have been proven to have a bias against non-white people.
Now it’s Microsoft’s turn, according to two of the biggest human and digital rights bodies in America. Though the tech giant has been vocal on its support for the black community, it hasn’t yet changed how or what it sells to police agencies.
“The world Microsoft seems to want is one where police have an invisible but inescapable surveillance presence in our communities,” wrote Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU. “Where an infrastructure exists to scan your face and identify you as you walk down the street, go to a protest, attend a place of worship, and participate in public life. Building a surveillance apparatus this big would have severe consequences — chilling demonstrations, fueling a for-profit surveillance industry, and creating racist watchlists that governments and businesses will use for discriminatory ends.”
He pointed not just to Microsoft’s sales of facial recognition to police, but also to its backing of a bill supporting the use of the surveillance tech. The bill, known as AB 2261, was blocked in California last week after strong opposition from ACLU and other groups. The nonprofit warned the bill would allow companies to scan the faces of people applying for jobs or getting financial services and even healthcare.
Facial recognition research has previously highlighted various racial issues with the tech. A 2019 study by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) suggested that for some algorithms, African American and Asian people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white males. In more recent news, Microsoft’s AI managed to confuse the faces of different mixed-race members of the famous pop group Little Mix. OneZero also reported Microsoft’s own employees have been calling on the tech company to stop working with police.
every resident with a camera within an area of interest to police—potentially giving police a one-step process for requesting footage of protests to identify protestors,” wrote Matthew Guariglia, policy analyst covering surveillance and privacy at the EFF. “These partnerships intensify suspicion, help police racially profile people, and enable and perpetuate police harassment of Black Americans.”
Following the death of George Floyd whilst in the custody of Minneapolis police, protesters calling for justice have faced off against law enforcement and federal agencies equipped with all manner of crowd control and surveillance technologies. Activists on the street are now running the gauntlet of drones, rubber bullets and tear gas to defend freedom of assembly, and to end the militarization of policing.