On the 21st floor of a high-rise hotel in Cleveland, in a room full of political operatives, Microsoft’s Research Division was advertising a technology that could read each facial expression in a massive crowd, analyze the emotions, and report back in real time. “You could use this at a Trump rally,” a sales representative told me.
At both the Republican and Democratic conventions, Microsoft sponsored event spaces for the news outlet Politico. Politico, in turn, hosted a series of Microsoft-sponsored discussions about the use of data technology in political campaigns. And throughout Politico’s spaces in both Philadelphia and Cleveland, Microsoft advertised an array of products from “Microsoft Cognitive Services,” its artificial intelligence and cloud computing division.
At one exhibit, titled “Realtime Crowd Insights,” a small camera scanned the room, while a monitor displayed the captured image. Every five seconds, a new image would appear with data annotated for each face — an assigned serial number, gender, estimated age, and any emotions detected in the facial expression. When I approached, the machine labeled me “b2ff” and correctly identified me as a 23-year-old male.
“Realtime Crowd Insights” is an Application Programming Interface (API), or a software tool that connects web applications to Microsoft’s cloud computing services. Through Microsoft’s emotional analysis API — a component of Realtime Crowd Insights — applications send an image to Microsoft’s servers. Microsoft’s servers then analyze the faces and return emotional profiles for each one.
In a November blog post, Microsoft said that the emotional analysis could detect “anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, neutral, sadness or surprise.”
Microsoft’s sales representatives told me that political campaigns could use the technology to measure the emotional impact of different talking points — and political scientists could use it to study crowd response at rallies.
Facial recognition technology — the identification of faces by name — is already widely used in secret by law enforcement, sports stadiums, retail stores, and even churches, despite being of questionable legality. As early as 2002, facial recognition technology was used at the Super Bowl to cross-reference the 100,000 attendees to a database of the faces of known criminals. The technology is controversial enough that in 2013, Google tried to ban the use of facial recognition apps in its Google glass system.
But “Realtime Crowd Insights” is not true facial recognition — it could not identify me by name, only as “b2ff.” It did, however, store enough data on each face that it could continuously identify it with the same serial number, even hours later. The display demonstrated that capability by distinguishing between the number of total faces it had seen, and the number of unique serial numbers.
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Instead, “Realtime Crowd Insights” is an example of facial characterization technology — where computers analyze faces without necessarily identifying them. Facial characterization has many positive applications — it has been tested in the classroom, as a tool for spotting struggling students, and Microsoft has boasted that the tool will even help blind people read the faces around them.
But facial characterization can also be used to assemble and store large profiles of information on individuals, even anonymously.
Alvaro Bedoya, a professor at Georgetown Law School and expert on privacy and facial recognition, has hailed that code of conduct as evidence that Microsoft is trying to do the right thing. But he pointed out that it leaves a number of questions unanswered — as illustrated in Cleveland and Philadelphia.
“It’s interesting that the app being shown at the convention ‘remembered’ the faces of the people who walked by. That would seem to suggest that their faces were being stored and processed without the consent that Microsoft’s policy requires,” Bedoya said. “You have to wonder: What happened to the face templates of the people who walked by that booth? Were they deleted? Or are they still in the system?”
Bedoya also pointed out that Microsoft’s marketing did not seem to match the consent policy. “It’s difficult to envision how companies will obtain consent from people in large crowds or rallies.”
“WE APPRECIATE THAT there are times when secrecy around a government warrant is needed,” Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote in a blog post on Thursday. “But based on the many secrecy orders we have received, we question whether these orders are grounded in specific facts that truly demand secrecy. To the contrary, it appears that the issuance of secrecy orders has become too routine.”
With those words, Smith announced that Microsoft was suing the Department of Justice for the right to inform its customers when the government is reading their emails.
The last big fight between the Justice Department and Silicon Valley was started by law enforcement, when the FBI demanded that Apple unlock a phone used by San Bernardino killer Syed Rizwan Farook.
This time, Microsoft is going on the offensive. The move is welcomed by privacy activists as a step forward for transparency — though it’s also for business reasons.