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Microsoft criticised for investing in Israeli facial recognition company allegedly conducting surveillance on Palestinians

Some civil society groups and privacy activists are criticising Microsoft's investment in AnyVision, an Israeli facial recognition company which is allegedly carrying out surveillance on Palestinians. In June 2019, Microsoft’s M12 venture capital arm announced it was joining a $78 million Series A funding round for AnyVision. As part of that deal, AnyVision agreed to adopt Microsoft’s six principles on artificial intelligence.

We invited Microsoft to respond; the response is included below.

AnyVision provided the following statement to Forbes: "AnyVision works with both civilian and non-civilian entities across the world, with applications in virtually every sector. We are keenly aware of the benefit and potential that facial recognition technology can provide to society. Likewise, we recognize such powerful technology has the potential to be misused if placed in the wrong hands, and that we have an inherent responsibility to ensure our technology and products are used properly."

On 27 March 2020, Microsoft and AnyVision released a joint statement stating that it is in the best interest for both companies for Microsoft to divest its shareholding in AnyVision. This follows an audit by Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his team at Covington & Burling that found that AnyVision’s technology has not previously and does not currently power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank. Microsoft also announced that, "By making a global change to its investment policies to end minority investments in companies that sell facial recognition technology, Microsoft’s focus has shifted to commercial relationships that afford Microsoft greater oversight and control over the use of sensitive technologies."

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Article
30 March 2020

Microsoft to sell stake in Israeli company AnyVision & announces it will end minority investments in companies that sell facial recognition technology

Author: Olivia Solon, NBC

Microsoft has announced plans to divest its shareholding in the Israeli facial recognition company AnyVision following an investigation of the company by former United States Attorney General Eric Holder... Holder and his team at the law firm Covington & Burling conducted an audit of AnyVision starting in October 2019 after NBC News and other news outlets including Forbes and Israeli business publication TheMarker reported that the facial recognition startup was surveilling Palestinians throughout the West Bank... In a summary of the findings, published Friday, Covington & Burling said that the technology is used at border crossing checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank, but noted that “available evidence demonstrated that AnyVision’s technology has not previously and does not currently power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank that has been alleged in media reports.”

...Human rights activists argued that AnyVision's work monitoring Palestinians in the West Bank was incompatible with its public statements about ethical standards for facial recognition technology... “After careful consideration, Microsoft and AnyVision have agreed that it is in the best interest of both enterprises for Microsoft to divest its shareholding in AnyVision,” said Microsoft in a statement. “For Microsoft, the audit process reinforced the challenges of being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology, since such investments do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology.”

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Article
27 March 2020

Joint statement by Microsoft & AnyVision – AnyVision audit

Author: Microsoft & AnyVision

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his team at Covington & Burling have completed their audit of AnyVision. The available evidence demonstrated that AnyVision’s technology has not previously and does not currently power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank that has been alleged in media reports. As such, Covington could not substantiate a breach of the Microsoft Global Finance Portfolio Company Pledge on Facial Recognition.

... After careful consideration, Microsoft and AnyVision have agreed that it is in the best interest of both enterprises for Microsoft to divest its shareholding in AnyVision. For Microsoft, the audit process reinforced the challenges of being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology, since such investments do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology. By making a global change to its investment policies to end minority investments in companies that sell facial recognition technology, Microsoft’s focus has shifted to commercial relationships that afford Microsoft greater oversight and control over the use of sensitive technology.

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Article
20 November 2019

Microsoft to probe work of Israeli facial recognition startup it funded

Author: Jeffrey Dastin, Reuters

Microsoft Corp... has hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether the use of facial recognition technology developed by an Israeli startup it funded complies with its ethics principles... Microsoft announced facial recognition ethics principles last year, saying the company would “advocate for safeguards for people’s democratic freedoms in law enforcement surveillance scenarios and will not deploy facial recognition technology in scenarios that we believe will put these freedoms at risk.”... NBC had reported that AnyVision’s technology was used within the West Bank and at Israeli border crossings. The company told NBC its software was not used for West Bank surveillance and was deployed at border crossings in a manner similar to U.S. Customs’ use of biometric identification at airports... AnyVision in an August blog post also said that it would announce an ethics advisory board and that it had a responsibility to prevent its technology’s abuse.  

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Company response
18 August 2019

Response from Microsoft

Author: M12, corporate venture arm of Microsoft

M12 is the corporate venture arm of Microsoft and was formerly known as Microsoft Ventures.AnyVision agreed to comply with Microsoft’s facial recognition principles as part of M12’s investment. Microsoft believes that technology companies need to exercise responsibility in the development and use of facial recognition technology. Microsoft has called for governments to regulate facial recognition technology. You can read Brad Smith’s blog calling for regulations on facial recognition technology here. In addition, Microsoft has published a set of principles that governs our facial recognition work. You can read our principles here

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Article
1 August 2019

Microsoft slammed for investment in Israeli facial recognition 'spying on Palestinians'

Author: Thomas Brewster, Forbes

Microsoft is under fire for funding the Israeli facial recognition company AnyVision, which is reportedly carrying out surveillance on Palestinians. AnyVision also supplies technology in Russia and Hong Kong, where human rights are under attack. Privacy activists say it’s another sign Microsoft is pushing the controversial technology, despite presenting itself as more progressive and transparent on the ethics of facial recognition than rivals like Amazon and Google... [According to Shankar Narayan, the director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the ACLU] "This particular investment is not a big surprise to me—there’s a demonstrable gap between action and rhetoric in the case of most big tech companies and Microsoft in particular." Microsoft, meanwhile, says it’s been consistent in its messaging on the surveillance technology.

... [I]n mid-July [2019], it was reported that AnyVision, a startup that came to market only two years ago promising 99.9% accurate facial recognition, was involved in Israeli surveillance projects across the West Bank. Haaretz published a report from TheMarker that claimed the army was using AnyVision at checkpoints on the way into Israel and across a network of cameras within the West Bank... Amos Toh, senior researcher covering artificial intelligence and human rights at the Human Rights Watch [said], "“I think it’s incumbent on Microsoft to really look at what that means for the human rights risk associated with the investment in a company that’s providing this technology to an occupying power,” he added. “It’s not just privacy risk but a privacy risk associated with a minority group that has suffered repression and persecution for a long time."

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