Microsoft pitched facial recognition technology to the DEA as recently as 2018, newly-released emails show (MSFT)


Brad Smith Microsoft

  • Emails released by the ACLU show Microsoft pitched facial recognition tech to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration as recently as 2018. 
  • Microsoft President Brad Smith says the company does not sell facial recognition to US police departments, and committed not to unless a nationwide law is passed to regulate the technology.
  • Smith didn’t say anything at the time, however, about whether the company will continue to work with federal law enforcement.
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Microsoft last week committed to not selling facial recognition technology to US police departments without new regulations — but the company didn’t say anything about federal law enforcement agencies.

Emails released by the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday show Microsoft as recently as 2018 pitched its facial recognition technology to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The ACLU obtained the emails through a lawsuit against the DEA and FBI, which it said in a press release is about alleged “secrecy shrouding their use of face recognition technology.” You can read the emails themselves, as released by the ACLU, here.

Around the same time that those emails were sent, Microsoft was publicly adopting a set of ethical principles for the use of its facial recognition technology, and urging the government to pass regulations barring unlawful discrimination and focusing on transparency. Microsoft has yet to respond to a request for more information.

Microsoft’s recent pledge to hold off selling to US police departments follows Amazon’s announcement on Wednesday that it would suspend police use of its controversial facial-recognition technology, Rekognition, for one year. IBM also this week announced that it would no longer sell facial recognition services to most customers. It’s unclear if or how those companies work with federal law enforcement.

Microsoft has been criticized before for its work with law enforcement agencies. In March, immigrant rights groups and some Microsoft workers asked tech companies including their own employer to stop sharing their technologies with Immigration and Customs Enforcement as the agency conducted raids during the coronavirus crisis. Nadella previously downplayed the company’s work with ICE.

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