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IBM nixes ‘general purpose’ facial recognition business

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IBM has stated in a letter to the US Congress that it will end its development of “general purpose” facial-recognition software, and supports a dialogue about the ethics of the use of the technology by domestic law enforcement.

In a letter to lawmakers, IBM’s new CEO Arvind Krishna wrote that the company would no longer offer general purpose facial-recognition software.

The letter makes reference to mounting outrage against police brutality – following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers – and states that IBM is ready to work with lawmakers on police reform and “responsible technology policies”. The letter confirms IBM’s support for the Justice in Policing Act, which aims to tackle police misconduct and racial bias.

“IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial-recognition or analysis software. IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency,” the letter says. “We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.”

The letter says that vendors and users of AI have a responsibility to ensure that AI is tested for bias, and calls for policies encouraging technology which could bring “greater transparency and accountability to policing” such as body cameras and data analytics.

The phrasing of the letter leaves open the opportunity for IBM to offer technologies for other government agencies (such as intelligence agencies), as well to provide data analytics tools for law enforcement purposes. It also proposed using an IBM school model (“P-TECH”) to support STEM education and training for young black people in the US.

It is likely that IBM has been weighing up closing its facial-recognition business for some time with the decision being largely motivated by business as well as ethical concerns; TV news channel CNBC has reported that IBM’s facial-recognition business was not a moneymaker. A source told Reuters that the decision was made over a period of several months and that IBM would continue to provide support while no longer marketing, selling, or updating its facial recognition products. However, Reuters reported that IBM would continue working on computer-vision technology for non-human objects.

Commercial facial-recognition software, most notably Amazon’s Rekognition, has been adopted by many local law-enforcement bodies in the US. However, commercial facial-recognition software has faced criticism for years, performing comparatively poorly when analysing the faces of women and people with darker skin tones.

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