Facial Recognition Concerns: Microsoft's Six Ethical Principles

As facial recognition begins to present general concern, Microsoft launches a plan for action.
Susan Fourtané
Mask/Photo by Serkan Turk on Unsplash 

Facial recognition technology brings important societal benefits but also some concerns about security and privacy. Along with some other emerging technologies, facial recognition needs to be developed, adopted, and used with caution and responsibility. 

Facial recognition and people’s privacy

Facial recognition is a cool technology and no mistake. It can be used in a plethora of ways for good. 

"Police in New Delhi recently trialed facial recognition technology and identified almost 3,000 missing children in four days.” - Brad Smith, President and CLO at Microsoft

However, as it also happens with many other cool technologies, its coolness depends on how humans choose to use the technology.

The widespread use of Artificial Intelligence-powered facial recognition technology can lead to some new intrusions into people’s privacy. Customers need to stay vigilant and must ensure that facial recognition services they use are properly deployed in order to reduce risk of privacy intrusion. 

Facial recognition and government mass surveillance

The use of facial recognition technology can be used by certain governments as an efficient mass surveillance tool. This can encroach on democratic freedoms.

Governments and the technology sector must work together ensuring that facial recognition technology is used for the benefit of society and its citizens while monitoring the possible risk of abuse. 

Knowledge and expertise in using facial recognition technology are still young. It's paramount for the public sector to be aware of the developments and perhaps think of solutions before the problems arise. 

Does the future include citizens wearing masks to protect their privacy and police officers wearing smartglasses to reveal their identity? 

Can you picture a scenario in the not so distant future when humans will be permanently monitored by cameras and followed by tiny drones that send your location and use predictive analytics to anticipate your next move?

You perhaps think that this is not yet possible. However, the technology for this and more is ready and available. Should you get your favorite Venetian mask ready?


Chinese police officers are now wearing high-tech smartglasses with a facial recognition system that can spot suspects in crowded public places. In China, citizens are constantly monitored either by CCTV or the newly adopted smartglasses that police wear not just to look cool but to see beyond the naked eye.

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The police in China counts with a database that includes habits, social credit, and even people’s friends and connections. When police officers are wearing the smartglasses, they can log onto that database that will match the face of the suspect with the information in the records. 

This new use of facial recognition technology has been a topic of discussion and concern among human rights groups and others concerned about privacy issues. Some questions arise from the use of this technology.

When too much surveillance is too much? What new risks this use of facial recognition pose to non-suspects who happen to accidentally be at the crime scene, so to speak, and have certain facial characteristics that resemble those of the suspect?

Is the current state of development of Artificial Intelligence smart enough to avoid the slightest error that a facial recognition system could possibly make?

Facial recognition in school environments

Chinese schools are testing facial recognition systems that can monitor students’ performance. Algorithms are then used to analyze and store the students’ facial expressions. The system can determine then if the students pay attention in class or not. 

 "This use of facial recognition technology could unleash mass surveillance on an unprecedental scale." - Satya Nadella, CEO at Microsoft 

This may be sound good for some. However, is it really good or is it a threat to the ability of expressing emotion through facial expression freely and the ultimate right of a human being to have private thoughts?

Some argue if it is ethical to let an algorithm judge and decide how much attention must be paid to certain topics. Some ethical questions arise.  How is this going to affect the children of the future? These questions need answers before facial recognition becomes a threat rather than a solution.  

Smart cities and facial recognition

Smart cities around the world are being built envisioning an enhanced public security. This includes the adoption of state-of-the-art facial recognition technologies embedded in cameras.

In the United States, facial recognition systems have been installed in some schools as an attempt to prevent deadly school shootings. However, this is not what will stop shootings. It only put children and teachers at other kinds of risk. 

Microsoft is adopting facial recognition principles 

According to Microsoft's Brad Smith, the company has adopted six principles to address the concerns that a misuse of facial recognition could bring.

Microsoft believes that these principles are the ones that global governments need to address as well: 

1. Fairness:

Microsoft will work to develop and deploy facial recognition technology in a manner that strives to treat all people fairly.

2. Transparency: 

Microsoft will document and clearly communicate the capabilities and limitations of facial recognition technology.

3. Accountability 

Microsoft will encourage and help its customers to deploy facial recognition technology in a manner that ensures an appropriate level of human control for uses that may affect people in consequential ways. 

4. Non-discrimination

Microsoft will prohibit in its terms of service the use of facial recognition technology to engage in unlawful discrimination. 

5. Notice and consent 

Microsoft will encourage private sector customers to provide notice and secure consent for the deployment of facial recognition technologies.

6. Lawful surveillance 

Microsoft will advocate for safeguards for people's democratic freedoms in law enforcement surveillance scenarios, and will not deploy facial recognition technology in scenarios that the company believes will put these freedoms at risk. 

With great power comes great responsibility

Facial recognition concerns everyone's privacy and everyone should follow its developments. Companies such as Microsoft which are taking the initiative launching these principles at this early stage will provide valuable experience from their learning process.

Microsoft is committed to sharing its learning journey with customers through training courses. This knowledge will also reach stakeholders and the general public. It is important to remember, though, that facial recognition represents a great power and, as Spiderman's uncle Ben once said, with great power comes great responsibility.