Microsoft sells stake in Israeli face recognition firm #52785

Andrew Cummings
March 30, 2020

But Microsoft also said Friday it is still divesting its stake in the startup, and will stop making minority investments in companies that sell facial-recognition technology.

Despite this outcome Microsoft has chose to divest from AnyVision, and, suitably burned, has pledged not to take any more minority investments in facial recognition companies, saying this did not allow them enough supervision to prevent similar incidents.

Even so, Microsoft said that as a result of the probe it chose to exit the business of investing in facial recognition startups altogether. Microsoft has defined principles to guide its personal development of the expertise, saying it should function without bias and must not impinge on democratic freedoms.

The decision to withdraw its investment from AnyVision, an Israeli company developing facial recognition software, came as a result of an investigation into reports that AnyVision's technology was being used by the Israeli government to surveil residents in the West Bank.

However, the tech giant said it had not been able to substantiate claims made by activists and Palestine solidarity campaigners that the company's technology was used unethically, after hiring former US Attorney General Eric Holder and a team of lawyers to audit the firm.

These six Microsoft principles guiding its application, use and by extension, investment in facial recognition technology are: fairness, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance. USA Eric Holder and his team at the worldwide law firm Covington & Burling found that "AnyVision's technology has not previously worked and is now not driving a mass surveillance program in the West Bank that is alleged in media reports".

Microsoft, who has always advocated for the ethical use of AI technology, had taken a minority investment in the company 5 months earlier, in June 2019, and fell into the scrutiny cross-hairs and was forced to launch an investigation in AnyVision's practices.

Being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology generally does not offer "the level of supervision or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology", the company said in a statement published on the Microsoft website for M12, the company risk investment fund.

There was no publicly available timeline for when Microsoft would offload its AnyVision stake, a spokesperson toldReuters.

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"We and other tech companies need to start creating safeguards to address facial recognition technology", Mr Smith said.

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