Microsoft Looms Over the Privacy Debate in Its Home State

Two Microsoft employees sat opposite one another in a Washington State Senate hearing room last Wednesday. Ryan Harkins, the company’s senior director of public policy, spoke in support of a proposed law that would regulate government use of facial recognition. “We would applaud the committee and all of the bill sponsors for all of their work to tackle this important issue,” he said.

On a dais among his fellow lawmakers sat the bill’s primary sponsor, Joseph Nguyen, a state senator and program manager at Microsoft.

The occasion was a legislative hearing on Nguyen’s proposal and a second, broader privacy bill, also supported by both Nguyen and Microsoft, that restricts some private uses of facial recognition.

The two bills are drawing interest from the tech industry, in part because they are seen as potential models for other states, or even federal lawmakers. The Washington bills, which have bipartisan support, would introduce restrictions on facial recognition, which is unregulated in most places today. The laws would require stores using the technology to disclose its use to consumers, and force police to obtain a warrant before scanning faces in public. But the proposals stop far short of the bans on the technology adopted by cities including San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and being considered by the European Union.

“People are really paying attention,” says Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology Innovation Foundation, a Washington, DC, think tank that takes funding from the tech industry. Microsoft’s interest in the bills, and the state’s status as a tech hub also home to companies including Amazon, make the legislation potentially influential nationally, he says.

A Microsoft spokesperson declined to discuss the Washington legislation. Other industry voices at last week’s hearing came from tech industry lobbying group TechNet; Motorola, which sells facial recognition surveillance systems to customers including schools; and Axon, which makes police body cameras.

That corporate interest and the text of the draft bills worry some people who favor tighter privacy regulations, such as the ACLU, and certain other Washington lawmakers. Norma Smith, a Republican state representative, calls the draft law with rules for private facial recognition “a corporate-centric bill that big tech supports to further their national interest.”

Smith says the bill lacks bite because it wouldn’t allow consumers to sue companies that violate the law. Smith has introduced a bipartisan bill of her own that prohibits use of any artificial intelligence technology to track personal characteristics such as gender or ethnicity in publicly accessible places.

The two laws proposed in Washington’s Senate recast a bill introduced last year that included rules on use of facial recognition by both government agencies and private interests, but failed despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that Microsoft helped draft it. The bill passed Washington’s Senate but Microsoft opposed the House version of its own bill after legislators added a requirement that companies certify their technology worked equally well for all skin tones and genders before deployment. Lawmakers couldn’t reconcile the different versions of the bill, and it foundered.

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This year’s bills divide the work of last year’s effort. Together their facial recognition provisions mostly match suggestions published by Microsoft in 2018, when company president Brad Smith called for regulating the technology. The company has continued to offer facial recognition technology through its cloud unit in the meantime; rival Google has said it won’t launch a similar service until appropriate safeguards are in place.

One of the new proposed bills is a broad privacy law, which, like a California law that took effect this month, allows consumers to ask companies to delete some personal data, or refrain from selling it. Microsoft has said it already offers the core rights provided by California’s law to all US customers.

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