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Microsoft Hires Former U.S. AG To Probe AnyVision

Microsoft President Brad Smith

image: Microsoft

Microsoft has said it has hired Eric Holder, a famed lawyer who served as the Attorney General of the U.S. from 2009 to 2015, to investigate if AnyVision, an Israeli AI company it invested in, violated Microsoft's ethics regarding use of facial recognition technology. Quoting a Microsoft spokesperson, Holder's team of former federal prosecutors "will move quickly, reviewing documents and conducting on the ground interviews with AnyVision employees and others to ensure a full and thorough investigation."

Anker Technologies

NBC News earlier reported Holder's hire. The news outlet previously reported that facial recognition technology developed by AnyVision had powered a secret military surveillance project for the Israel army that monitored Palestinians in the West Bank. According to NBC News, the project was so successful that AnyVision won Israel's top defense prize in 2018 for preventing "hundreds of terror attacks" using "large amounts of data." AnyVision on the other hand denied the assertion, and called the report inaccurate. NBC said the Israel Defense Forces had declined to comment.

AnyVision sells a facial recognition/surveillance system dubbed "Better Tomorrow". The system lets customers identify individuals and objects from live camera feeds, and then track targets as they move between different feeds. The Israel-headquartered company also sells a security system dubbed "SesaMe", which involves the use of facial recognition to control access to physical locations.

Facial recognition technology, although applicable for security purposes, has drawn controversy regarding its use in that light, and playing a possible role in mass surveillance. Several organisations and individuals alike, including Microsoft President Brad Smith, have criticized and warned about the use and possible abuse of facial recognition technology.

Eric Holder (pictured) will lead a team from law firm Covington & Burling to conduct the probe

image: IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law via Flickr

Microsoft, via its venture arm M12, participated in a $74 million Series A for AnyVision in June. According to NBC, part of its investment agreement was that AnyVision complies with its six ethical principles to guide its facial recognition work: fairness, transparency, accountability, nondiscrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance.

The last principle states, "We will advocate for safeguards for people’s democratic freedoms in law enforcement surveillance scenarios and will not deploy facial recognition technology in scenarios that we believe will put these freedoms at risk." In a case where AnyVision's work is found to be in violation of Microsoft's ethics, it could cost the company its relationship with the software giant.

It's not that a situation where Microsoft ran into issues regarding its status an investor in AnyVision didn't seem imminent. As at the time its investment in AnyVision was announced, Microsoft faced backlash for funding the company, whose software is said to be also used in other countries like Russia and Hong Kong. AnyVision in response to a substantial amount of backlash, has said it had a responsibility to prevent abuse of its facial recognition technology. The company also touted how the use of facial recognition tech speeds up border crossings while assisting law enforcement in spotting criminals.

It's worth noting that Microsoft develops facial recognition technology similar to that of AnyVision. However, the company has said it won't sell it "for the purposes of mass surveillance anywhere in the world".





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