#IBM4BLM: IBM abandons facial recognition in solidarity with Black Lives Matters movements

July 1, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

 In a public letter to Congress on 8 June 2020, US tech company IBM announced it would no longer endorse the usage of facial recognition technology in law enforcement.

What does this mean?

Over the last decade, facial recognition technology has been incorporated into many aspects of our lives, such as unlocking our phones and tagging our Facebook photos. However, issues have surfaced over the use of facial recognition in law enforcement, due to the racial bias of the technology and the lack of regulation (to read more about this, click here).  

In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, IBM declared that it would no longer offer general-purpose IBM facial recognition software and it would not support vendors who continue to offer their technology for the “purpose of mass surveillance, racial profiling and violations of basic human rights and freedoms”.

In IBM’s public letter, the company encouraged a “national dialogue” on the use of facial recognition in law enforcement.

What's the big picture effect?

Not only has IBM succeeded in creating a national dialogue on the subject, but it has also encouraged other tech companies to follow suit.

Two of the biggest players in the facial recognition market, Amazon and Microsoft, have also made a stand and distanced themselves from the use of their technology in law enforcement. Amazon announced a year-long ban on police departments from using their facial recognition technology. The company states that this moratorium (a temporary ban of an activity) would give Congress time to implement stronger regulations to govern the use of such technology in law enforcement.

Tech companies are certainly taking measures to encourage the responsible use of their technology. However, there are concerns that their facial recognition technology may still be available for use by other government agencies and that tech companies are too involved in the creation of legislation to regulate the technology. 

Neither company has addressed whether US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would also be barred from using their facial recognition technology. ICE’s use of such technology has been controversial for many years for the same reasons that have led to the moratorium on law enforcement. In order to consolidate their claim of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the moratorium should be extended to all government agencies until specific regulations have been implemented. 

Microsoft has publicly backed certain legislation to regulate the use of facial recognition technology. Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties lawyer with the ACLU of Northern California, states that whilst “companies like Microsoft should work with the civil rights community… no company-backed bill should be taken seriously unless the communities impacted say it is the right solution”. 

The public show of solidarity with the BLM movement by IBM, Microsoft and Amazon has shown that tech companies are mobilising to encourage the responsible use of their technology. However, uncertainty over the scope of the moratorium and concerns over company-backed legislation highlight that there is still more to be done to ensure that facial recognition is not misused by government agencies and law enforcement.

Report written by Emily Noble

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