Emails reveal Microsoft tried selling the DEA facial recognition tech

The news casts Microsoft's recent comments on facial recognition and federal law in a very different light.

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It's been only one week since Microsoft president Brad Smith told The Washington Post that the company had a "principled stance" on facial recognition and wouldn't sell it to police departments until there was a "national law" governing its use.

That bold and noble move is looking decidedly less so after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) this week released emails from Microsoft pitched to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In these emails, Microsoft reveals its true stance: Sell its facial recognition abilities to the federal agency, no matter how controversy-riddled it is.

What do the emails say? — The emails obtained by the ACLU — which you can read here — reveal Microsoft repeatedly working on persuading the DEA to buy its facial recognition technology, offering to pilot the program, train employees in Virginia, and more. According to the ACLU, the DEA did not buy Microsoft's software but it still makes us wonder whether Microsoft has attempted to sell its facial recognition technology to other federal agencies in the United States? This is a direct contradiction of Microsoft's proclamation a week ago that it would seek facial recognition technology "that is grounded in the protection of human rights."

The dire state of the DEA — For years, the DEA has been criticized for what many perceive to be an unfair and life-endangering emphasis on targeting and detaining people of color. Adding facial recognition to the mix would only worsen matters. In 2019, The Washington Post reported that in the past decade, the DEA had made 179 arrests in reverse-sting cases in the southern district of New York. None of the defendants were white.

With facial recognition technology's potential for misidentifying and miscategorizing people of color, this sort of program has the disturbing power to ensnare unsuspecting, often innocent, people.

All that posturing for nothing — This is obviously poor form from Microsoft. In spite of its repeated signaling that it understood the public's concerns around facial recognition, potential privacy issues, and police-sanctioned abuse, the company appears eager to push the software at the federal level. It's an unmistakable case of its actual and internal mission contradicting its public-facing statements.

"Even after belatedly promising not to sell face surveillance tech to police last week, Microsoft has refused to say whether it would sell the technology to federal agencies like the DEA," said Nathan Freed Wessler, ACLU's senior staff attorney for speech, privacy, and technology. "It is troubling enough to learn that Microsoft tried to sell a dangerous technology to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration given that agency’s record spearheading the racist drug war, and even more disturbing now that Attorney General Bill Barr has reportedly expanded this very agency's surveillance authorities, which could be abused to spy on people protesting police brutality."