The US tech firm could not have found a better partner with whom to get back into the facial recognition market than the current UK government.
IBM has staged a quiet, almost imperceptible, return to the highly controversial facial recognition market, just three years after calling it quits on the technology over concerns about racial profiling, mass surveillance, and other human rights violations in the wake of the George Floyd murder. The US tech giant signed a £54.7m ($69.8m) with the UK government in August to develop a national biometrics platform that will offer a facial recognition function to immigration and law enforcement officials, as reports a joint exposé by The Verge and Liberty Investigates:
A contract notice for the Home Office Biometrics Matcher Platform outlines how the project initially involves developing a fingerprint matching capability, while later stages introduce facial recognition for immigration purposes — described as “an enabler for strategic facial matching for law enforcement.” The final stage of the project is described as delivery of a “facial matching for law enforcement use-case.”:
The platform will allow photos of individuals to be matched against images stored on a database — what is sometimes known as a “one-to-many” matching system. In September 2020, IBM described such “one-to-many” matching systems as “the type of facial recognition technology most likely to be used for mass surveillance, racial profiling, or other violations of human rights.”:
A “360 Degree U-turn”
As Germany’s Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock would say, this is a 360 degree u-turn for a company that just three years ago had sworn off all forms of facial recognition technologies that could be used for “mass surveillance, racial profiling (and) violations of basic human rights and freedoms.”
After George Floyd’s grisly death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter riots in the late spring of 2020, IBM’s CEO Arvind Krishna wrote a letter to U.S. lawmakers calling for “a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law-enforcement agencies.” As for IBM, he wrote, it would immediately stop building and selling general purpose facial recognition software:
The fight against racism is as urgent as ever… IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software. 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 which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency.
Days after the publication of Krishna’s letter, Amazon announced that it would also suspend police use of its facial recognition software, inviting Congress to “put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use” of the technology. Days later, Microsoft joined the bandwagon, saying it too would suspend sales of its technology to law enforcement agencies, at least until regulatory guardrails were put in place. In return, the three companies received a flurry of positive press in the legacy media at a time when corporate virtue signaling was beginning to peak.
An article in the Washington Post included an anonymously-cited claim that “Krishna’s move wasn’t made overnight, but had been the culmination of more than two years of criticism about such technology from human rights and privacy advocates over accuracy, racial profiling and mass surveillance concerns.” The move also made sense from a hard-nosed business perspective, given that IBM’s facial recognition operations were not a big revenue generator.
Mutale Nkonde, a research fellow at Harvard and Stanford universities who directs the nonprofit AI for the People, told the LA Times that the “symbolic nature” of IBM’s move was, in and of itself, important:
[S]hutting down a business “under the guise of advancing anti-racist business practices” shows that it can be done and makes it “socially unacceptable for companies who tweet Black Lives Matter to do so while contracting with the police.”
An anonymous source told CNBC that IBM’s decision was “both a business and ethical one.” The company had purportedly heard and acted upon concerns from “many constituencies, including employees, about its use of the technology.” Similarly gushing coverage dominated the corporate mediascape. Fast Company was almost alone in offering a more skeptical interpretation of IBM’s motives:
The parade of announcements from giant tech companies is an attempt “to virtue signal as a company,” says Rashida Richardson, director of policy research at the AI Now Institute…
IBM came first. The company sent a letter on June 8 addressed to Congressional Black Caucus members and sponsors of the Justice in Policing Act, introduced the same day. IBM CEO Arvind Krishna recognized the “horrible and tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor,” and stated that the company “no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software.”
The thing is, it appears IBM already stopped making its facial analysis and detection technology available in September 2019.
The IBM announcement is “not bad because it’s better than doing nothing, but that said I think it’s completely promotional and opportunistic,” says Richardson.
A Stark Contrast
The contrast between the gushing media attention and coverage over IBM’s withdrawal from the facial recognition market and the blanket media silence on its recent u-turn could not be starker. As far as I can tell, even Reuters and AP didn’t deign to cover the story, leaving it to a handful of independent or specialist news outlets like Vox-operated The Verge and The Register to keep it from being totally memory-holed. But their reach is miniscule compared to most mainstream outlets, meaning that for most people, IMB is still on the right side of this deeply controversial issue. According to the company, it still very much is. From The Verge:
IBM spokesman Imtiaz Mufti denied that its work on the contract was in conflict with its 2020 commitments. “IBM no longer offers general-purpose facial recognition and, consistent with our 2020 commitment, does not support the use of facial recognition for mass surveillance, racial profiling, or other human rights violations,” he said.
“The Home Office Biometrics Matcher Platform and associated Services contract is not used in mass surveillance. It supports police and immigration services in identifying suspects against a database of fingerprint and photo data. It is not capable of video ingest, which would typically be needed to support face-in-a-crowd biometric usage.”
Human rights campaigners, however, said IBM’s work on the project is incompatible with its 2020 commitments. Kojo Kyerewaa of Black Lives Matter UK said: “IBM has shown itself willing to step over the body and memory of George Floyd to chase a Home Office contract. This won’t be forgotten.”
Matt Mahmoudi, PhD, tech researcher at Amnesty International, said: “The research across the globe is clear; there is no application of one-to-many facial recognition that is compatible with human rights law, and companies — including IBM — must therefore cease its sale, and honor their earlier statements to sunset these tools, even and especially in the context of law and immigration enforcement where the rights implications are compounding.”
It should perhaps come as little surprise that a company that played such a crucial role in enabling the Nazis’ systematic extermination of ethnic Jewish populations and Romani across Europe, as exhaustively documented by investigative journalist and historian Edwin Black in the book IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, is now reneging on its pledge to never facilitate the use of facial recognition systems. The company is also accused of aiding and abetting the human rights abuses of the government of South Africa during apartheid rule.
Big Blue could not have found a more enthusiastic partner with whom to get back into the facial recognition business as the UK government, which is at the leading edge of a tech-enabled authoritarian shift taking place among ostensibly liberal democracies. Whereas the EU recently adopted a blanket ban on the use of live facial recognition (LFR) in public spaces (apart from at its borders), the UK government is pushing for all police forces in England and Wales to make widespread use of the technology while fiercely lobbying the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to retroactively greenlight its use by high street retailers.
“As minister I want to do everything possible to promote the widespread use” of facial recognition technology and will “continue to push this agenda forwards”, wrote UK Policing Minister Chris Philp to the founder of facial recognition company Facewatch, Simon Gordon, in a letter that was obtained through a freedom of information request. In fact, so great is the UK Home Office’s enthusiasm for biometric surveillance technologies like facial recognition that the ICO classifies it as an “ongoing risk”, together with the “still unknown” effects of the use of the technology in shops.