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Guest Editorial: Facial recognition is a significant threat

Facial recognition and other forms of artificial intelligence figure to sharply increase the capabilities of the surveillance state, and even tech companies are concerned.

It is rare for a major corporation to call for government regulation of its work and products, but that is precisely what Microsoft's president did recently.

Brad Smith, whose company is one of several tech giants feverishly working on artificial intelligence projects, including facial recognition, wrote in a blog post that the risk of abuse is so large that the government should set standards for its use.

Indeed, China already is using facial recognition in widespread surveillance of its population, and Amazon sells its facial-recognition technology, Rekognition, to police at low cost.

As the technology becomes ever more precise and widespread, it figures to put the surveillance state we already have — with security cameras watching and recording almost everywhere — into hyperdrive. When Big Brother meets Big Data, big problems figure to result.

Microsoft employees have internally protested to company management its contract with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, for which Microsoft provides a set of cloud-computing tools that also can include face recognition. The corporation replied that its work with ICE is limited to mail, messaging and office work.

Among the areas Smith thinks the government should consider regulating: who oversees police or other government use of facial recognition; the use of it in racial profiling; and public notification.

Those are indeed significant questions. But an even better one is: Should companies, or the government, be allowed to scan the face of every pedestrian and check it against, and add it to, its database of information?

Regardless of the purpose of such surveillance, this strikes us as a gross violation of our right to be left alone. Americans have never wanted a police state, and we shouldn't accept one just because it is based on algorithms.

The Supreme Court this year sharply limited police authority to use warrantless cellphone tracking. As intrusive as that practice seems, the surveillance possibilities offered by facial recognition and other artificial intelligence tools are far greater. They should be reined in promptly.