At a time when many tech companies are pouring money into facial-recognition research, Microsoft is selling off its investments into the technology. The company has announced it is divesting its shares in AnyVision, an Israeli facial-recognition company alleged to be contributing to mass surveillance in the West Bank.
A recent audit found that AnyVision’s technology was not used in a mass surveillance program, but Microsoft has chosen to pull its investment from the company anyway. “After careful consideration, Microsoft and AnyVision have agreed that it is in the best interest of both enterprises for Microsoft to divest its shareholding in AnyVision,” the companies said in a joint statement. “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.”
Microsoft has previously called on Congress to regulate facial-recognition technology more closely. In a 2018 blog post, company president Brad Smith argued that “the more powerful the tool, the greater the benefit or damage it can cause.” He called on the government to introduce regulation to prevent abuse of the technology and to protect human rights, and compared the need for regulation in the facial-recognition industry to regulations brought in in the 20th century regarding seat belts, air safety, or the regulation of food and pharmaceutical products.
Now, Microsoft is putting its money where its mouth is by pulling investment from AnyVision and also announcing it would no longer make minority investments in any other companies that sell facial-recognition technology. Microsoft said it made this decision based on a lack of oversight it has as an investor in smaller companies.
Microsoft’s stance against unchecked use of facial recognition is notable as other tech companies like Facebook and Amazon are investing heavily in facial-recognition technologies. Facebook recently had to pay a $550 million settlement in a lawsuit alleging it violated biometric privacy laws in Illinois by failing to obtain permission before using biometric data and for not being transparent about how that data was stored and used.