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Microsoft Urges Congress To Regulate Facial Recognition Technology


You don't usually find companies asking for regulation on the technology that they're developing, but Microsoft is doing just that. The company wants Congress to write laws for its facial recognition technology in 2019. Microsoft is positioning itself as an outspoken elder statesman while still trying to beat its competitors. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: For Silicon Valley, this has been a troubled year.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The market's down, and Apple's a big reason why.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It's a wave of walkouts at Google offices around the globe.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Facebook just had what might be the biggest wipeout in stock market history.

SELYUKH: And in the midst of it all, this happened.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Microsoft surpassed Apple.

SELYUKH: Microsoft has now several times unseated Apple as the world's most valuable company - a designation Microsoft last occupied in the early 2000s. Part of Microsoft's steady rise in the recent years has to do with avoiding crises. The company has been cultivating an image as Silicon Valley's moral compass. It does business with the government while also suing the government. It profits from controversial new technologies while also urging regulation. Here is Microsoft president Brad Smith speaking today at the Brookings Institution.


BRAD SMITH: We have turned down deals because we worry that the technology would be used in ways that would actually put people's rights at risk. You don't want to see the race run by some people who are taking the high road while others who may just not be thinking enough about these issues.

SELYUKH: We should note, Microsoft is one of NPR's sponsors. For a long time, Microsoft was viewed as a stodgy company. After years of struggling with its identity, it's coming into its own, finding its place among the newer tech stars like Google and Amazon. Technologically, Microsoft decided to bet on data stored on the cloud, and cloud computing is paying off big.

ANDREW HUNTER: They have made a tremendous amount of progress in the last two to three years of really bringing their product up on par with what Amazon has been offering. And Amazon has been the market leader a lot in the cloud computing space.

SELYUKH: Andrew Hunter is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies where he follows government contracts. Now, much of the government already runs on Windows and Office, but now it's a race to put government data on the cloud and to sell the government modern technologies, including to the Defense Department.

HUNTER: Their profile within the market has really risen in the last couple years.

SELYUKH: In Silicon Valley, this kind of work took on new controversy this year. Amazon faced an outcry for giving its facial recognition technology to law enforcement, raising concerns about surveillance. Google canceled a contract with the Pentagon after employees protested that their artificial intelligence could be used for drone strikes. At Microsoft, CEO Satya Nadella also had to quell dissent over the company's products being used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the same time, Microsoft signed a deal worth almost half a billion dollars with the U.S. Army. It will equip soldiers with augmented reality headsets. Again, Microsoft is trying to walk the middle line. Here's Brad Smith speaking last week at a defense conference.


SMITH: For us, we've been clear. We are going to provide the U.S. military with access to the best technology, to all the technology we create - full stop.

SELYUKH: But then he adds Microsoft will also be actively involved in setting boundaries for this technology, especially artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons. In today's speech, Smith did just that, laying out a plan to regulate facial recognition. He says, if we wait while technology spreads, we could be on our way to Big Brother dystopia. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.