Thursday, April 2, 2020

Microsoft withdraws investments from Israeli startup AnyVision

An Israeli startup, AnyVision, promised 99.9% accuracy in face recognition solutions and impressed the world. Their solutions work on any sensor, and picture quality to provide real-time results.

The tech giant, Microsoft, and several other renowned names in technology had invested in this company. Since June 2019, M12 is the active department of Microsoft and was initially called Microsoft Ventures, spending a total of $78 million. AnyVision agreed to comply with Microsoft's facial recognition principles as part of M12's investment.

The startup came under scrutiny when Haaretz's TheMarker business newspaper and NBC News reported that AnyVision, based outside Tel Aviv, is used to surveil Palestinians who live in the occupied West Bank.

Microsoft was highly criticized for backing AnyVision by some civil society groups and privacy activists. The organization is accused of pushing controversial tech into marker despite knowing its severity and potential risks.

In response, Brad Smith published a blog with pros, cons, and the middle ground of using facial recognition, and Microsoft released one highlighting six principles of facial recognition service. After avoiding any statement for the longest time, in August, AnyVision said that it would announce an ethics advisory board. This board had a responsibility to counter its technology's misuse. At the same time, it lauded how facial recognition speeds up border crossings while assisting law enforcement spot criminals. 

Finally, in October 2019, Microsoft Corp hired Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General. He was to investigate whether the use of AnyVision, that Microsoft funded complies with its ethical principles. Microsoft and AnyVision mutually reported that the review didn't validate any break of Microsoft's standards.

An announcement from the Washington-based law office Covington and Burling, where Holder works, said that accessible proof "shows that AnyVision's innovation has not beforehand and doesn't as of now facilitate any mass surveillance program in the West Bank as affirmed in media reports." The law office said the review incorporated an audit of bookkeeping records and a site visit to AnyVision's offices in Holon, Israel.

After careful thought, Microsoft and AnyVision have concurred that it is to the greatest advantage of the two endeavors for Microsoft to strip its shareholding in AnyVision. Further announcing that being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology restricts the audit process because minor investments do not warrant significant control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology.

Microsoft still has facial recognition technology in its Azure cloud computing platform. The feature is called Face API and lets developers embed facial recognition into apps for highly secured user experience. Chief legal officer, Brad Smith, has gone on record to declare that Microsoft would never sell facial recognition for surveillance purposes. He added a concern that law and enforcement activities aided by face-recognition are a potential threat to civil and human rights.

Big names in the IT and AI like, Facebook, Google, and Clearview AI have also found themselves under a spotlight due to the lack of opt-in provisions for end-users, and malicious practices. As more and more activists are joining the mission of protecting privacy and human rights, and we can expect new discoveries and hopefully, some positive news in the near future.

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