Microsoft tried to sell facial recognition technology to the DEA, emails show

Microsoft repeatedly marketed its facial recognition technology to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to emails released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Wednesday.

The emails, dated between September 2017 and December 2018, raise questions about the tech giant’s work with law enforcement after it promised last week not to sell facial recognition to police departments.

They show that the DEA piloted the facial recognition technology and that Microsoft hosted agency personnel at its Virginia office for demos and training.

A November 2018 email shows that the DEA did not purchase the technology at the time.

The Hill has reached out to Microsoft and the DEA for comment on their relationship and cooperation with facial recognition technology.

“It is bad enough that Microsoft tried to sell a dangerous technology to a law enforcement agency tasked with spearheading the racist drug war, but it gets worse,” Nathan Freed Wessler, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, said in a statement.

“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. This is troubling given the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s record, but it’s 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.”

Microsoft announced last Thursday that it will maintain its ban on selling facial recognition tools to police departments until there is a federal law governing the technology, following commitments on the issue by IBM and Amazon.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment beyond publicly available contract records.
The companies’ moves come amid concern from activists and civil rights groups that law enforcement may be using facial recognition tech to identify individuals participating in the anti-police brutality demonstrations that have erupted across the nation since the killing of George Floyd.

The emails released by the ACLU Wednesday, which were obtained as part of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the DEA and FBI over their use of facial recognition, give fuel to those criticizing the companies for putting out statements to get good press while still working with law enforcement.

Even before the protests, facial recognition technology had been criticized as a tool for unwarranted surveillance, while multiple studies have found that it tends to misidentify women and people of color at comparatively higher rates than men and white people. 

Updated 1:31 p.m.

Tags facial recognition Microsoft

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