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IBM stops work on facial recognition over human rights concerns

It believes the tech can be abused for racial profiling and surveillance.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
June 8, 2020
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The backlash to facial recognition among governments is extending to corporate heavyweights. IBM chief Arvind Krishna has sent a letter (via Axios and CNBC) to Congress revealing that the company has exited its “general purpose” facial recognition business. The company “firmly opposes” use of the technology for surveillance, racial profiling and “violations of basic human rights and freedoms,” according to Krishna. Instead, he suggested that now was the moment for a “national dialogue” on not only how facial recognition should be used, but whether or not it should be used at all.

The CEO contended that AI was a “powerful tool” for law enforcement, but that its use had to be kept in check with audited tests for bias. He also pushed for technology that improved accountability and transparency, such as body cameras.

Krishna’s letter was part of a broader call on Congress to push for broader police accountability and conduct reforms, including some that were already part of the recently introduced Justice in Policing Act of 2020.

The move comes in the midst of protests over police brutality and discrimination, and not long after Clearview AI’s facial recognition raised privacy and bias issues. More than one report has indicated that facial recognition systems can be biased against non-whites and women, particularly if the training data includes relatively few people from those groups. And while some facial recognition systems may only correlate faces with publicly available data, there are concerns this could be used for tracking and profile generation that could be used to intimidate people or otherwise limit their real-world privacy.

As CNBC noted, it’s relatively easy for IBM to back out when facial recognition wasn’t a major contributor to its bottom line. The media buzz may be as important as anything. IBM is still a major company, though, and it frequently works with governments. This could spur other providers to follow suit, and might even get some would-be customers to drop facial recognition entirely.

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