IBM vowed to dial back facial recognition tech, but recently landed $70 million contract to develop it


Why it matters: In June 2020, IBM told Congress it had sunset its general purpose facial recognition and analysis product lines over concerns about mass surveillance and racial profiling. CEO Arvind Krishna outlined the changes in a blog post shared on IBM’s website that included a copy of the letter sent to Congress.

That post no longer appears on IBM’s website. Based on archives from the Wayback Machine, it seems Krishna’s entry was removed in early 2022. But why?

According to documents reviewed by Liberty Investigations and The Verge, IBM inked a $69.8 million contract with the British government to create a biometrics platform complete with facial recognition functionality just last month. According to the jointly published report, the system will be used as a tool for immigration and law enforcement agencies.

A document related to the contract highlights the five stages of the Biometric Matcher Platform and associated Services (BMPS) program. Phase three references a face algorithm that will enable strategic face matching for law enforcement use.

When probed for comment, IBM spokesperson Imtiaz Mufti stuck to the company’s 2020 stance. “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,” Mufti said.

The spokesperson added that the BMPS program is not used in mass surveillance, and that it is not capable of video ingest which is often necessary for face-in-a-crowd biometric scanning. Instead, it uses fingerprint and photo data to help police and immigration identify suspects.

The UK’s Home Office, the agency that governs law enforcement and immigration in the region, did not respond to a request for comment from The Verge.

Not everyone agrees with IBM’s view. Matt Mahmoudi, PhD, tech researcher at Amnesty International, told The Verge that there is no application of one-to-many facial recognition that is compatible with human rights law. “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,” Mahmoudi added.

It is worth noting that other major tech players followed IBM’s lead back in 2020. Just days after IBM’s letter to Congress was published, both Amazon and Microsoft said they would stop selling their facial recognition tech to police.

Image credit: Burst, Parker Coffman


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