Microsoft Slammed For Investment In Israeli Facial Recognition 'Spying On Palestinians'
Microsoft is under fire for funding the Israeli facial recognition company AnyVision, which is reportedly carrying out surveillance on Palestinians. AnyVision also supplies technology in Russia and Hong Kong, where human rights are under attack.
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Privacy activists say it’s another sign Microsoft is pushing the controversial technology, despite presenting itself as more progressive and transparent on the ethics of facial recognition than rivals like Amazon and Google. Shankar Narayan, the director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Forbes that he’d held meetings with Microsoft in Seattle last year in which the tech giant appeared receptive to ideas on holding back the spread of facial recognition. But the company has not followed through with any action, Narayan claimed.
“This particular investment is not a big surprise to me—there’s a demonstrable gap between action and rhetoric in the case of most big tech companies and Microsoft in particular,” he said.
Microsoft, meanwhile, says it’s been consistent in its messaging on the surveillance technology, though it hadn’t provided comment for this article at the time of publication.
AnyVision initially declined to comment, but sent a statement after publication: “AnyVision works with both civilian and non-civilian entities across the world, with applications in virtually every sector. We are keenly aware of the benefit and potential that facial recognition technology can provide to society. Likewise, we recognize such powerful technology has the potential to be misused if placed in the wrong hands, and that we have an inherent responsibility to ensure our technology and products are used properly.”
Microsoft’s facial recognition quandary
Not long after its meeting with ACLU, Microsoft began talking publicly about its thoughts on ethics and facial recognition. In July, president Brad Smith called for regulation, saying that while there were many positive uses of facial recognition, it could also be abused for aggressive surveillance and infringements on citizens’ human rights.
Then in December, he posted a blog titled “Facial recognition: It’s time for action.” Again he reiterated the good and the bad, warning about the potential for dangerous failings in the technology; facial recognition has, for instance, repeatedly been criticized for failing to differentiate people of non-white ethnicities. And he laid out Microsoft’s six principles that would guide its approach to facial recognition: fairness, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance.
Then, in June, Microsoft’s M12 venture capital arm announced it was joining a $78 million Series A funding round for AnyVision. As part of that deal, AnyVision agreed to adopt Microsoft’s six principles, as the two planned a partnership. As for any technical collaboration, more may be coming: Microsoft currently hosts a Web page advertising AnyVision’s products on its business app store.
Funding for that $78 million round also came from other American and European companies, including LightSpeed Venture Partners, Robert Bosch and Qualcomm Ventures. None of those firms had responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
It’s unclear whether investors were aware of AnyVision’s business in regions with tainted human rights records. The Israeli company is trying to grow its business in Hong Kong, where protesters this week used lasers in an attempt to stop facial recognition profiling them. In a job post for a sales position in Hong Kong, AnyVision discloses it has customers and partnerships not only in that country but also Macau, the so-called Las Vegas of Asia. In Russia, a country heavily criticized for its human rights record, the AnyVision’s tools are deployed at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, according to a post on the company’s website.
Then in mid-July, it was reported that AnyVision, a startup that came to market only two years ago promising 99.9% accurate facial recognition, was involved in Israeli surveillance projects across the West Bank. Haaretz published a report from TheMarker that claimed the army was using AnyVision at checkpoints on the way into Israel and across a network of cameras within the West Bank.
AnyVision has ties to the nation’s intelligence and military. Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo heads the AnyVision advisory board, whilst the president is Amir Kain, former head of the defense ministry’s security department.
Some have decried Microsoft’s backing of AnyVision. One critic, cybersecurity entrepreneur Matt Suiche, called the investment “scandalous.”
Amos Toh, senior researcher covering artificial intelligence and human rights at the Human Rights Watch, told Forbes there were various concerns at play around Microsoft’s investment. The use of the technology in “a very fraught political context” could be problematic, said Toh.
“I think it’s incumbent on Microsoft to really look at what that means for the human rights risk associated with the investment in a company that’s providing this technology to an occupying power,” he added. “It’s not just privacy risk but a privacy risk associated with a minority group that has suffered repression and persecution for a long time. There are special considerations of discrimination there.”
AnyVision breaks America
And it’s growing a significant sales arm in the U.S. The company’s CEO and cofounder Eylon Etshtein told TheMarker the company is actively lobbying the U.S. government to promote the idea that facial recognition is a “good thing.”
AnyVision and its partners will face scrutiny from Americans, though, in particular from the ACLU, which has become increasingly frustrated at Microsoft in recent months.
The ACLU’s Narayan questioned how deep Microsoft’s ethics boards—in particular the AI and Ethics in Engineering and Research (AETHER) division—had looked at the AnyVision investment. Without transparency, it’s impossible to say, he said, adding: “It’s ironic given how much they’ve trumpeted transparency.”
Despite ostensibly positive meetings in 2018, in January this year, the ACLU was frustrated when Microsoft backed a bill that allows the use of the technology, but only with the permission of citizens and in a way that does not “unlawfully discriminate under federal or state law against individual consumers or groups of consumers.” The ACLU, which labelled the Microsoft-backed regulation “abysmal,” supported a different bill that called for discussion among concerned parties before any such technology was deployed.
Some parts of the U.S. are going all the way and banning, or considering a ban, of facial recognition. San Francisco has put a moratorium on its use in the city, for instance.
Microsoft may have been more vocal than rivals like Amazon and Google in talking about the ethics of the surveillance business. But as long as it is creating, disseminating and funding such technology, it will continue to be scrutinized by those wary of facial recognition.