Microsoft to pull minority investments in facial recognition companies

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Facial recognition is a touchy subject. Many fear that it could be used to limit freedoms and view it as a gross violation of privacy. As such, the Big Tech world has to tread carefully. The line between developing helpful facial recognition (such as for biometric security) and that which could be seen as harmful is thin.

Microsoft has taken a stance in the facial recognition space by following a set of principles that limit how it will use the technology. Now, it’s backing up those words with action. Following a controversy with Israeli startup AnyVision, Microsoft says that it will no longer invest as a minority in any third-party facial recognition companies.

By bringing its facial recognition work back in-house, the company will have better control over how it is used. Moreover, removing its ties from companies like AnyVision will help keep Microsoft out of the public’s speculating eye.

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Withdrawing the Money

Microsoft’s seemingly abrupt decision to stop its practice of minority investing in facial recognition startups is driven by a still-developing controversy with AnyVision. Last year, reports emerged claiming that AnyVision was using its recognition tech to surveil Palestinian citizens at West Bank checkpoints. Such behavior goes against Microsoft’s principles for the technology.

In response to the claims, an independent investigation by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder took place. The team conducting the insight said, “AnyVision’s technology has not previously and does not currently power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank that has been alleged in media reports.”

However, that isn’t good enough for Microsoft. It seems that the incident opened the company’s eyes. An announcement from its M12 investment division reads, “For Microsoft, the audit process reinforced the challenges of being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology, since such investments do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology.”

To address that challenge, the Big Tech firm will no longer invest as a minority in facial recognition companies. As of now, it hasn’t provided a timeline for when it will pull its funding from AnyVision.

Internalizing Innovation

To be clear, Microsoft isn’t ready to stop working on facial recognition. The technology will likely play a major role in the world moving forward (for better or worse). As such, it wants to stay at the forefront.

Microsoft has its own facial recognition platform through Azure called Face API. Although this can be used by developers and other companies, the company retains better control over it. For instance, it refused to give law enforcement access to the tech over civil rights concerns.

Meanwhile, Microsoft will continue to work with companies that it has larger investments in since it has a greater degree of control in these situations. It’s unclear whether Microsoft’s new approach will still allow it to fully acquire facial recognition startups.

With companies like Clearview AI serving as examples of what not to do, Microsoft hopes to be a positive role model for the world of facial recognition moving forward. Hopefully, this new policy will help it avoid any further controversies.

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