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Microsoft CEO: Face recognition technology is basically the Wild West right now

Published Jan 24th, 2019 5:16PM EST
Microsoft facial recognition regulation
Image: Microsoft

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has been beating the privacy drum hard this week during an appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, telling attendees that the US needs its own version of Europe’s new GDPR regulatory framework. And, speaking of regulations, he’s also been especially vocal that facial recognition technology desperately needs governmental oversight now, or very soon, before tech companies take things to the extreme and use it to cross too many lines and inadvertently add frightening new capabilities to the surveillance state.

Nadella’s comments in Davos on the need for general privacy regulation have been a bit broad and high-level, but he’s been particularly specific about face recognition technology, describing it as basically the Wild West right now in the tech industry. As in, it’s little understood by outsiders, there’s a ton of potential for misuse and not a lot of robust constraints at the moment.

“One of the things that I feel today is, in the marketplace, there’s competition,” Nadella said during this week’s annual gathering of movers and shakers from around the world. “There’s no discrimination between the right and the wrong use of facial recognition.”

He didn’t publicly shame anyone, but he added a warning that tech companies can’t be trusted to self-regulate themselves in this area. Something that calls to mind any number of privacy overreaches that have made headlines in recent months, thanks to companies ranging from Amazon to Facebook. Governments pretty much have to step in, Microsoft’s chief executive argued, because otherwise there will basically just be a “race to the bottom” when it comes to facial recognition tech if they don’t.

It’s certainly interesting, to say the least, to hear Microsoft’s chief emerge as a staunch privacy champion. He no doubt had in mind things like this news we told you about earlier this month, involving doorbell cameras being used to spy on their owners, among other recent examples. That is precisely the kind of thing that worries some people about facial recognition technology, which big tech giants like Apple and Samsung say is also a useful alternative to traditional methods of securing a device via something like a password.

For its part, Microsoft is putting its money where its mouth is. After calling for regulation in December that would put limits on the use of AI software in facial recognition systems, Microsoft has also said it plans to roll out a set of ethics guidelines for the technology crafted by the company before the end of March.

In related news, Nadella at Davos also described Europe’s new GDPR privacy regulation introduced last year as a “fantastic start,” adding that the US — and for that matter the rest of the world — should take some cues from its rollout.

“I am hopeful that in the United States we will have something that’s along the same lines,” Nadella said. “In fact, I hope that the world over we all converge on a common standard. Because one of the things we do not want to do is fragment the world and increase transaction cost.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.

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