Emails Show Microsoft Tried to Sell Face Recognition System to Federal Law Enforcement

Despite Pausing Sales to Police, Company Has Not Made Same Commitment for Sales to Federal Law Enforcement

June 17, 2020 1:00 pm

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BOSTON — Today the American Civil Liberties Union released emails revealing how Microsoft aggressively marketed its face recognition product to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The emails, dated September 2017 through December 2018, show that the company repeatedly tried to persuade the DEA to purchase the technology, that the agency piloted the technology, and that Microsoft hosted DEA personnel for multiple demos and a training on how to use the technology at the company’s office in Reston, Va.

“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, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “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.”

Recent reports indicate that Attorney General Bill Barr issued a memo temporarily expanding the DEA’s surveillance authorities that could easily be abused to spy on individuals protesting police brutality. The scandal-ridden agency also has a long history of racially-disparate practices. A 2009 analysis found that Black and Latinx people compromised 72 percent of all DEA arrests, despite the fact that they make up only 31 percent of the population. The DEA also has a troubling history of keeping invasive surveillance activities secret, including extraordinary measures it took to conceal bulk collection of Americans’ phone records from courts, defense attorneys, and others.

The emails released today were obtained as part of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts against the DEA and FBI over the secrecy shrouding their use of face recognition technology.

According to the emails, it appears the DEA did not purchase the technology as of November 2018 because, among other items, the agency was concerned about criticisms leveled at the FBI over its use of face recognition technology. It is not yet known if Microsoft sold its technology to any other federal law enforcement agency.

After facing mounting pressure, Microsoft last week announced that it would not sell its face recognition technology to police departments in the United States. Amazon made a similar commitment to halt sale to police for a year. Microsoft and Amazon have, to date, not yet confirmed whether this commitment extends to federal agencieslike ICE, the FBI, or the DEA.

A blog post by Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts on surveillance and racism is here:

The emails released today are here:

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