Microsoft's president says we need to regulate facial recognition to avoid a 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' scenario

Brad Smith was joined by Tony Blair at WebSummit to discuss the challenges of facial recognition technology

Surveillance, machine learning, facial recognition

Microsoft's president Brad Smith said facial recognition technology needs to be regulated so the world doesn't turn into a Nineteen Eighty-Four scenario with everyone's actions tracked and scrutinised.

He told attendees at WebSummit in Lisbon, Portugal that the way in which facial recognition technology is developing and being used by more businesses could be detrimental to the average person's privacy.

"It potentially means every time you walk into a store, a retailer knows when you were in there last, what good you picked out, what you purchased," he said, reported Recode. "I think even that frankly pales in comparison to what it could do to relationships between individuals and the state."

Although Microsoft has built its own facial recognition technology, Brad recognises that regulating the industry is the most effective way to make sure it doesn't get out of hands and businesses start misusing their powers. Of course, he accepts that in some cases, such as finding criminals and monitoring illegal activities, it's an effective technology, but warned those applications mustn't get out of hand.

"For the first time, the world is on the threshold of technology that would give a government the ability to follow anyone anywhere, and everyone everywhere. It could know exactly where you are going, where you have been and where you were yesterday as well," Smith said.

"And this has profound potential ramifications for even just the fundamental civil liberties on which democratic societies rely. Before we wake up and find that the year 2024 looks like the book '1984', let's figure out what kind of world we want to create, and what are the safeguards and what are the limitations of both companies and governments for the use of this technology."

He suggested governments should put regulations in place that restrict the use of facial recognition - whether by businesses, individuals or by purpose. But getting the worldwide standards in place could be tricky.

Ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair joined Smith onstage, highlighting the challenge that getting the government to listen is the major challenge.

"I don't think the governments are yet equipped to understand [these issues], but I think they need to be," Blair said. "It really is necessary for those in the tech world ... to educate the policy makers as to what this means," he said.

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