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Big tech's pause on facial recognition not likely to blunt deployment

This is part of a two-part series on recent developments in the facial recognition technology business. The other installment can be found here.

Amid a broader national conversation around police reform, large technology companies announced plans to scale back or pause the sale of facial recognition technology to police departments. Experts and industry officials, however, said the announcements alone are unlikely to make much of an impact on the sector.

As demonstrations around the world took place to protest police brutality, Amazon.com Inc. announced June 10 that it is implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition technology. Similarly, Microsoft Corp. President Brad Smith announced a day later that the company will not sell its facial recognition technology to police departments until a federal law is in place to regulate it.

International Business Machines Corp. also announced June 8 it has sunset its general purpose facial recognition software.

Variant Market Research, which offers research covering various industries, suggests the global facial recognition market is estimated to reach $15.4 billion by 2024. Though recent calls for reform to policing systems have thrown a spotlight on the risks involved with the use of the technology, such as misidentification concerns, various companies stand ready to capitalize on the segment's potential by continuing to work with law enforcement and also by supporting other use cases.

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Major players

Jameson Spivack, a policy associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law who conducts research on law enforcement's use of facial recognition, said in an interview that none of those large tech companies who have made the recent announcements are what he considers major players in the business of supplying police departments with facial recognition tech.

"The [majors] are smaller and more specialized companies that make either face recognition specifically, or they make surveillance technologies or security technologies," he said. "They're not household names."

According to Spivack, the more specialized companies like Clearview AI Inc. have not indicated that these announcements from large tech companies have had any effect on their decisions to keep selling this technology. In fact, Clearview has a banner on its homepage that reads, "Available now for Law Enforcement."

Another company that works closely with police departments is NEC Corp. of America Inc. According to a marketing page specifically for law enforcement, NEC said it offers a suite of "the fastest, most accurate facial recognition solutions available."

NEC did not respond to a request for comment about whether the conversation around police reform and regulating facial recognition will impact its plans.

Brendan Klare, CEO of Rank One Computing, another provider of facial recognition service to law enforcement, said in an email that "due to the strong benefit and lack of a pattern of harm due to the technology itself, we have no current plans to stop supporting" the technology's use by law enforcement. The company will "continue to monitor the ethical implications of this use-case for any changes," he said.

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Notably, a police department in Michigan reportedly used Rank One's technology in January in an incident where it used facial recognition technology to misidentify and arrest a man named Robert Williams. Klare, however, said that these types of incidents are isolated and appear to represent investigative missteps taken by law enforcement agencies, which are working to correct them.

Klare further pointed to 2019 stats from the New York Police Department that cite possible matches provided by facial recognition software in dozens of murders and rapes and hundreds of felony assaults and robberies. Klare said law enforcement agencies generally are "following the principles we have set forth in our Code of Ethics, which are designed to minimize the risk of misarrests when followed (while still enabling tremendous public safety benefits)."

On its website, Rank One claims to be "trusted by" more than 20 law enforcement agencies.

'Intentionally vague'

Spivack noted that announcements from companies like Amazon and Microsoft seemed to be "intentionally vague" about the nature of their relationships with law enforcement for facial recognition services beyond police departments, noting that it was unclear if they were still working with other law enforcement agencies.

Microsoft declined to comment on whether other law enforcement agencies are using their facial recognition technology. Similarly, Amazon declined to comment on how they are addressing contracts with police who have already purchased their technology or whether police departments are still using their technology.

"If there are still police departments using Amazon's technology … then the effect of their announcement is certainly not what they suggested," Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, said in an interview. "It's an odd situation where they're acknowledging the danger, they're acknowledging the technology has fundamental flaws, yet police agencies are still using it."

Political climate

The ACLU has voiced its support of a recent bill that would ban the use of biometric surveillance by federal agencies unless explicitly authorized by an act of Congress. When introduced last month, however, the bill only had the support of four congressional Democrats.

Spivack, who has testified in both Massachusetts and Maryland in favor of moratorium bills related to facial recognition, said he actually could envision Amazon and Microsoft coming out in a year and advocating for regulations that allow them to sell their face recognition technology unimpeded.

"In a year, the heat may be off face recognition and policing, and it may be a politically more friendly environment," he said in an email. "At this point, they will be hoping to prevent bans/moratoria, and pass regulatory bills that don't discourage police use of face recognition enough to decrease sales of their products."

Other uses

Some companies providing facial recognition services for other uses said the conversation around reforming and regulating the technology has had virtually no impact on their business.

Shaun Moore, CEO and founder of Trueface, a facial recognition services company, said in an interview that his company sees demand for services such as physical access control into facilities and digital verification of employees.

"We don't have any law enforcement partners," said Moore, adding that the conversation around police reform and needed changes to the application of facial recognition tech "hasn't altered our market strategy."

While Moore does note that the "overall regulatory conversation" has halted a few conversations his company has had with Fortune 500 companies, as they were hesitant to invest resources into something that could be "regulated out," he said those conversations have only been with companies that are "extremely sensitive" to those risks.

"For the most part, 95% of the time, it has not stalled or affected our business," he said.