IBM Contradicts Pledge Not to Develop Facial Recognition Systems, Strikes $70 Million Deal

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In 2020, during the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, IBM vowed not to sell its facial recognition technology. However, despite its own statements, the company has signed a £54.7 million ($69.8 million) contract with the UK government to develop a national biometric platform with facial recognition capabilities for use by law enforcement and immigration authorities, according to reports from The Verge and UK investigative journalism organization Liberty Investigates.

In June 2020, IBM’s CEO Arvind Krishna sent a letter to the US Congress stating, “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose that is not consistent with our values and ‘Principles of Trust and Transparency.'” The company later called for the introduction of export control regulations in the US that would prevent the use of facial recognition systems “for suppressing dissent, infringing on human rights and freedoms, or conducting mass surveillance,” even abroad.

However, in August 2023, IBM entered into a contract with the UK government to develop a national biometric platform with facial recognition capabilities. Initially, this platform involves fingerprint matching, but it later plans to incorporate facial recognition for immigration services, described in documents as a “strategic facial matching capability for law enforcement.” In essence, it will involve matching photographs of individuals with images from a database, which is known as a “one-to-many” matching system. In September 2020, IBM explicitly stated that “one-to-many” matching systems were “the type of facial recognition technology that, more likely than not, will be used for mass surveillance, racial profiling, and other violations of human rights.”

IBM appears to be acting in contradiction to its own statements. Imtiaz Mufti, a spokesperson for the company, stated, “In line with our commitments in 2020, IBM no longer offers general-purpose facial recognition technology, does not support the use of facial recognition technology for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of human rights, or other purposes inconsistent with our values. […] The Home Office Biometrics Matcher Platform and related services are not used for mass surveillance. It assists police and immigration authorities in identifying suspects through fingerprint database matching and photograph data. It is not capable of video capture, which is typically required for taking biometrics from ‘faces in the crowd.'”

Human rights advocates have criticized IBM’s actions, emphasizing that “one-to-many” facial recognition systems are incompatible with human rights laws, and companies should stop selling them in line with their stated commitments. The use of such systems by the police in the US has been associated with unlawful arrests, and in the UK, its legality has been challenged in court. In August 2020, the Court of Appeal in the UK ruled that the use of facial recognition technology by South Wales police violated the right to privacy and equality laws. Although the police initially suspended its use, they later resumed it.

Following IBM’s lead, Amazon and Microsoft also imposed moratoriums on selling facial recognition systems to US police departments. In June 2020, Amazon instituted a one-year moratorium on selling Amazon Rekognition to police, with intentions to extend it indefinitely. In the same month, Microsoft announced it would not sell facial recognition technology to US police departments until federal regulations were in place to govern its use. A representative from Microsoft referred to the company’s website, which explicitly states that the use of Azure AI Face service “by state or municipal police in the United States—or for their use in the United States—is prohibited by Microsoft policy.” The UK Home Office did not respond to requests for comment.

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Martin Harris
I'm Martin Harris, a tech writer with extensive experience, contributing to global publications. Trained in Computer Science, I merged my technical know-how with writing, becoming a technology journalist. I've covered diverse topics like AI and consumer electronics, contributing to top tech platforms. I participate in tech events for knowledge updating. Besides writing, I enjoy reading, photography, and aim to clarify technology's complexities to readers.

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