Big tech companies are dialing up the pressure on Congress to limit police use of facial recognition software, amid resurgent efforts in Washington following the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd.
But the latest pledges by Microsoft, Amazon and IBM haven’t defused civil rights advocates’ concerns about tech companies dealing potential surveillance tools to governments. And they’re stirring suspicions among lawmakers that industry giants are trying to dictate the terms of its regulations to Washington.
The three big companies drew headlines this week by promising either to temporarily halt sales of their face-scanning software to law enforcement agencies, or in IBM’s case, to shutter that part of its business. The companies also urged Congress to step in and place guardrails on the use of facial recognition, an effort that stalled in the Capitol last fall and has until recently remained largely stymied during this year’s pandemic.
While the announcements are at least partially symbolic — Microsoft says it already wasn’t selling those tools to police departments — the calls for congressional action mark an increasingly offensive posture for an industry that has faced heat from its own employees for dealing out tools that critics say facilitate mass surveillance and racial profiling by cops.
“We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith during a virtual interview Thursday, where he announced the company won’t sell the tech to U.S. police departments until there’s a national law in place. “That is the only way that we will guarantee that we will protect the lives of people.”
The pledges have drawn both praise and skepticism from Democrats and civil rights groups, who immediately noted some gaps: Amazon said it was halting the police sales for only a year, for example, and neither it nor Microsoft explicitly said whether their policies would apply to federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.
Other critics have noted the announcements don’t encompass the full range of cutting-edge tools that the companies supply to law enforcement agencies, including home surveillance systems that lawmakers have sounded the alarm on. The moves could also create an opening for lesser-known tech companies that remain big sellers of facial recognition services to police agencies. They include Clearview AI, a U.S. company that allows hundreds of law enforcement agencies to search for individuals from a database of billions of photos scraped from online sources.
And some lawmakers are already calling for greater commitments from the industry.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), whose state is home to Amazon and Microsoft, said she wants more tech companies to follow Microsoft’s suit and implement their own moratoriums until Congress sets new rules. She’s calling on them to actively lobby for more stringent legislation restricting the tools’ use.
“I think that we just need to call on all of them to be conscious that they’re not just passive bystanders that are waiting for government regulation to happen,” said Jayapal, who has been one of Amazon’s and Microsoft’s most outspoken critics in Congress. “We actually need them to lead.”
Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), who introduced legislation last year to ban the use of facial recognition for public housing, said the industry has followed up on past congressional calls for more sweeping reform by pushing for its own preferred remedies.
“The initial response from big tech was to propose their own legislative solution,” she said. “This move was alarming. So yes, I am concerned that big tech will try to dictate those rules.”
Some libertarian Republicans have also expressed alarm at government use of facial recognition, and one key White House ally — Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio — has pushed for a “time out” on its deployment by federal agencies.
But the tech companies’ new pledges have drawn some early criticism from GOP leaders, including a retweet early Friday by President Donald Trump that called for barring Microsoft from any federal contracts.
One senior Republican congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks, accused Amazon of flip-flopping on its stance after fighting to fend off moratorium proposals on Capitol Hill.
“I would love to be a fly on the wall at the board meeting where Amazon’s government affairs team explains why it spent millions of dollars lobbying against a moratorium that it then decided to impose on itself,” said the aide.
The issue has gained renewed attention amid reports that law enforcement agencies across the country are deploying advanced tools, from drones to face-scanning tech, to monitor the protests that erupted around the country since Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis.
Democratic lawmakers have blasted the trend as an affront on activists’ rights to privacy and assembly. And their new sweeping policing reform package calls for limits on warrantless use of facial recognition software on body-cam footage.
It’s a fresh sign of life for a push that has stalled for months on Capitol Hill. A bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee, including Jordan, have floated placing a moratorium on federal law enforcement use of facial recognition until Congress could implement checks on the technology — similar to what companies like Microsoft and Amazon are now self-imposing. But the momentum for that legislation got bogged down after the lawmaker leading the campaign, the late Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, died in October.
The unrest over Floyd’s killing is giving new urgency to complaints that the technology contributes to racial disparities in policing — and it’s renewing calls for a legislative remedy.
Jayapal said she plans to introduce her own legislation that would place a broad moratorium on facial recognition use. A spokesperson said the bill is expected to apply to commercial use of the software, not just police use.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Oversight Committee, told POLITICO he’s drafting legislation separate from the committee’s work that focuses on local and state law enforcement use of the software, instead of federal use. He says that while he supports the broader Democratic package on police reform, the Justice in Policing Act, it alone won’t address his and other lawmakers’ concerns over the technology.
“That bill by itself can’t solve the whole issue on facial recognition,” he told POLITICO on Thursday. “That’s why we need these other bills, and that’s why we have to do it now instead of waiting a year to get it done, because the American people’s attention and focus is what’s creating this opportunity and without it we couldn’t move this issue forward.”
While some House Republicans and Democrats agree on the need for a temporary halt to federal use of face-scanning technology, less of a clear consensus exists on whether that should extend to other law enforcement authorities, and even less so on restrictions for private sector use.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), for one, called it dangerous to halt the United States’ use of an advanced technology that other countries are also racing to deploy.
“This technology isn’t perfect and there are certainly risks associated with it,” said Rodgers, but added: “I am concerned that if America abandons this technology, we will be ceding development of it to the Chinese Communist Party, which does not share our values of human rights and civil liberties.”
But that’s a debate that the tech industry is now loudly saying it thinks is long overdue.
Amazon, which said Wednesday it’s halting sales to police of its widely used Rekognition tool for one year, urged Congress to take action. “We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge,” wrote the company in a blog post. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”
Civil liberties advocates and lawmakers say big questions remain about the tech giants’ newly announced moratoriums, particularly from Amazon and Microsoft.
Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that besides not addressing sales to federal agencies like DHS, the companies didn’t say how the pledges would affect preexisting arrangements with law enforcement departments.
“Are those tools still in use, are they still supporting that work, are they pulling that?” said Guliani, who called on the companies to “fully disclose” which agencies will be affected by the moratoriums.
Amazon spokespeople did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether its moratorium will apply to federal agencies, or for how it will apply to any preexisting arrangements. A Microsoft spokesperson declined to offer comment on the same questions, but reiterated in a statement that the company plans to “strengthen” its review process for other customers seeking to use the product.
Others say some of the companies’ temporary commitments just don’t go far enough.
“I would like to see everybody say that they are not going to utilize this technology until we’re really convinced that there aren’t negative impacts to it, that we can control those,” said Jayapal, “And right now it doesn’t say that.”
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