Microsoft’s decision to retain former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate how one of its partner companies uses facial recognition technology, announced late last week, highlights one of the unique challenges the tech industry is facing.
American tech companies are navigating intense scrutiny without many federal guardrails. Their users and employees are increasingly demanding tech companies take a stand on controversial issues. But without regulators to create a level playing field, some companies are taking on an enforcer role, policing their tech industry peers.
It’s a particularly difficult challenge for Microsoft, a company that has, in many ways, escaped the current techlash. Microsoft says its mission is to supply technology that allows other companies and entrepreneurs to innovate. But the further Microsoft’s products get from in-house development, the less control the company has over how its technology is used.
How can Microsoft ensure that the technology it supplies to thousands of innovators around the world is compliant with the company’s ethical standards?
Microsoft’s audit of AnyVision may provide an answer. The company has enlisted Holder — who served as attorney general under President Barack Obama — to investigate an Israeli company called AnyVision. Microsoft’s venture capital fund, M12, invested in AnyVision’s $74 million financing round earlier this year.
AnyVision makes surveillance technology, including a robust facial recognition product. The company landed in hot water in October when NBC News reported that AnyVision’s technology was used in a secret military surveillance project monitoring Palestinians in the West Bank. AnyVision denies its technology is used in that way. In a statement provided to GeekWire, an AnyVision spokesperson said the company welcomes Microsoft’s audit.
“In recent weeks, there have been a number of inaccurate reports on AnyVision technology. We proactively encouraged Microsoft to conduct an audit of our company and look forward to engaging with the team at Covington & Burling LLP. Ethics, privacy and data integrity are the foundational principles upon which our technology and our company were built. We look forward to the audit validating our high standards and continuing to provide a technology for good.”
Holder will lead the audit with support from former federal prosecutors at the law firm Covington & Burling, according to CNBC. It’s somewhat familiar territory for Holder, who also led an investigation into sexual harassment at Uber and advised Airbnb on anti-discrimination policies.
“They will move quickly, reviewing documents and conducting on the ground interviews with AnyVision employees and others to ensure a full and thorough investigation,” a Microsoft spokesperson told GeekWire.
In 2018, Microsoft established ethical standards it believes companies developing facial recognition tech should uphold.
Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company would, “advocate for safeguards for people’s democratic freedoms in law enforcement surveillance scenarios, and will not deploy facial recognition technology in scenarios that we believe will put these freedoms at risk,” in a blog post at the time.
Facial recognition software has become a lightning rod. Civil rights groups are concerned about the technology’s potential to amplify human bias and impact communities amid growing surveillance. It’s also a point of contention for some employees at tech companies who have used activism to try to pressure their employers to stop providing surveillance technology to law enforcement.
Microsoft has been walking a fine line amid these pressures. The company has held firm in its resolve to continue supplying technology to the government and partnering with other companies.
In an interview with GeekWire last month, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that the company’s “core mission” is to help partners develop new technology.
But the company has its limits. Microsoft refused to sell its software to a California law enforcement agency that wanted to run face scans “anytime they pulled anyone over,” Smith said in April. Microsoft wouldn’t allow an unnamed city in another country to use facial recognition software on cameras in public spaces. Smith said Microsoft was willing to provide the technology to an American prison, however.
Because of its size, influence, and partner strategy, Microsoft has found itself in a unique position. The company is investigating and enforcing its vision of how controversial technologies, like facial recognition, should be used around the world.
“While it’s better to address these issues broadly, we should not wait for governments to act,” Smith wrote in his 2018 blog post. “We and other tech companies need to start creating safeguards to address facial recognition technology.”