IBM Shifts Conversation on AI in Law Enforcement

The collision of technology and privacy has become a hot topic internationally in the digital age. Consumers worry if too much of their personal data is being shared online, and others wonder if there’s any limit to what kind of data companies can gather on them. However, they still love being connected and the convenience of online mobile devices and social media applications, for whom data collection is a key part of their business model.

As technology brands wrestle with where to draw lines publicly and privately, at least one recognized international brand is making a very public statement. IBM recently announced the company will cancel its facial recognition program and, in the same statement, called for ongoing public debate on the issue of police forces using facial recognition tech.

IBM CEO Arvind Krishna sent a letter to elected government officials volunteering his company to work with lawmakers to find ways to use technology to promote police reform, as well as educational opportunities for law enforcement to use technology in a “responsible” manner:

It said: “We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies… IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values…”

In a follow-up statement, an IBM spokesperson told the media that the company plans to limit the use of its visual technology to “visual object detection” rather than facial recognition. The goal for that tech would be to help manufacturers and farmers be more efficient and productive.

It’s no coincidence that IBM is making these public statements during weeks of public protest following the death of George Floyd. It is far from the only company that has taken a stand on racial and social issues in recent days. Some are speaking out offering support, while others have built PR campaigns around slogans related to the BLM movement, and some have joined in the protests.

Protesters and their supporters have openly called on American companies to take an even more active role in supporting social change around the movement, and it appears IBM is positioning its brand to take that step. Surveillance, including facial recognition, is a concern for protesters who fear consequences for taking part in even peaceful marches and other nonviolent, lawful events.

Krishna maintains that the tech itself isn’t bad, but it could be used in ways his company is not comfortable, adding: “Artificial intelligence is a powerful tool that can help law enforcement keep citizens safe. But vendors and users of AI systems have a shared responsibility to ensure that AI is tested for bias…”

IBM has also called for regulations that allow AI to be used in ways that “ensure human rights are protected.” As this story unfolds, it will be telling to see which other tech companies come out with specific actions related to these issues, as well as what both consumers and law enforcement agencies say about the decision.

Ronn Torossian is the CEO and Founder of 5W Public Relations. 5W PR is a leading digital pr and influencer marketing agency.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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