- Tech companies must take ethical action when society and the law are unready.
- Customers are increasingly demanding that companies use suppliers that are ethically sound.
The technology industry moves fast. Often it outpaces the society it serves from a social and legal standpoint. In this gap, it ethically falls to the tech industry not only to restrain itself, but also to set examples and to educate until the social and legal parts of society catch up. The latest example of this is facial recognition technology.
As a society, we do not have sufficient laws, regulations, and use guidelines concerning facial recognition technology. Nor do we have the societal consensus, particularly in liberal democracies, about the proper role of facial recognition technology. Problems abound with the technology. These include accuracy, government abuse, broad commercial privacy concerns, algorithmic bias, and use of the technology by authoritarian regimes as a method of control.
The knee-jerk reaction is to simply ban the technology or have the major players in the space abandon their research. None of that will be effective. There will always be companies, somewhere in the world, which will advance facial recognition technology. As computers and AI become more adept at identifying our everyday world for things like self-driving cars, augmented reality, and even quality control for the food and manufacturing industries, it will be impossible to keep facial recognition under wraps. The tools that make it easy to spot pedestrians, bruised fruit, and mangled potatoes can and will be adapted for facial recognition. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle, no matter how much that seems like an easy and effective solution.
What we saw this week was IBM take decisive action to walk away from facial recognition technology. This is disappointing, because IBM walking away from the technology does not solve the problem. Others with less established track records on ethical behavior, such as Clearview.ai, simply continue. The industry needs to work together.
Amazon and Microsoft acted on facial recognition technology as well. Amazon announced a moratorium on selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement for a year. Microsoft said it will not sell facial recognition technology to law enforcement until there is a national law regulating its use. They have punted the problem over to lawmakers, absolving themselves of responsibility. But to be fair, Microsoft President Brad Smith acknowledged that these three vendors cannot act alone in a live stream by the Washington Post. “If all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those that aren’t prepared to take a stand, we won’t necessarily serve the national interest or the lives of the Black and African American people of this nation well,” he said. He continued on, commenting that Congressional action “is the only way that we will guarantee that we protect the lives of people.”
Essentially these three companies have tacitly or outright acknowledged that facial recognition technology is a problem, riddled with ethical and societal questions. They have taken action that makes them look good but really only in relation to companies that have said nothing. The industry is ceding the argument to lawmakers, at least in the United States. During the vacuum between technology creation and societal consensus and lawmaking, technology vendors have an ethical obligation to lead. They need to consider the damage not taking an ethical stance could do to the company’s reputation and of course resistance from their own employees, who are increasingly taking public stances against unethical behavior by their employers.
Technology vendors need to get ahead of the curve, not only regarding to *whom* they sell this kind of technology, but also with guidelines and EULAs that restrict how this technology is used. Every major technology vendor has internal ethics committees. These committees often only deal with ethical behavior for the vendor itself. It’s time to expand their remit and for them to issue guidelines and restrictions about ethical behavior and use practices by end customers. This should also extend to making themselves available to lawmakers and academics for a two-way dialog.
Many are going to cite profit motive and the long-standing attitude that technology creators cannot control how their product is used. They will throw their hands in the air. It will be said that vendors it cannot make it happen. It’s true that they cannot do it alone. But they can do their part. They need to. Customers will choose suppliers who will not damage their own reputation; unethical behavior could lead to actual loss of sales.
The nature of buying is changing. Companies are being judged by their partners and customers on how ethical the vendors they use are. Technology vendors cannot simply continue with business as usual. Changes in society will ensure that.
Leaders at technology companies, not just facial recognition vendors, need to ask themselves a simple question: Do you want the company you lead to just look good or actually be good? Choose wisely and soon.