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Google and Microsoft clash over proposed EU facial recognition ban

Written by Tue 21 Jan 2020

Brad Smith tells EU to address problem “with a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver”

An EU proposal to temporarily ban facial recognition technology has divided opinion in the upper echelons of the techsphere, with leaders from Google and Microsoft offering divergent responses to the proposed bill.

Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai was quick to back the proposal, leaked online this week, over concerns the technology could be misused. Meanwhile, Microsoft President and chief legal officer Brad Smith said an outright ban would be a step too far and called for a more measured response.

Speaking at a conference in Brussels, Pichai, who was recently promoted to chief executive of Google and its parent company Alphabet after founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page stepped down, said it was down to governments “to chart a course” for the use of the technology.

“I think it is important that governments and regulations tackle it sooner rather than later and gives a framework for it,” Pichai said.

Smith, on the other hand, cited positive applications of facial recognition technology in the third sector, where NGOs are experimenting with face-tracking systems to locate missing children.

“I’m really reluctant to say let’s stop people from using technology in a way that will reunite families when it can help them do it,” Smith said. “The second thing I would say is you don’t ban it if you actually believe there is a reasonable alternative that will enable us to, say, address this problem with a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver,” he said.

Smith recognised the danger that such systems could be used for mass surveillance but said regulators first should identify all of the technology’s problems before creating rules around its use. “There is only one way at the end of the day to make technology better and that is to use it,” he said.

A leaked draft of a whitepaper revealed the European Commission is mulling a temporary five-year ban on the use of facial recognition technologies in public areas while it crafts more thorough legislation to prevent the technology being abused by governments and businesses. Exceptions to the ban could be made for security projects and other R&D.

The paper also calls for restrictions on developers and users of the controversial technology and for countries to set up an authority to monitor compliance.

The plans were laid out in a draft of an 18-page whitepaper, seen by Reuters and obtained by EURACTIV, with the final version set for publication in February.

The proposed ban follows similar legislation in San Francisco preventing police from using the technology. China has been criticised for extensively integrating the technology into its surveillance systems. The country’s mobile carriers are required to scan the faces of all new mobile users using facial recognition software.

Written by Tue 21 Jan 2020

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