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Divesting from one facial recognition startup, Microsoft ends outside investments in the tech

Jonathan Shieber
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 2: The Microsoft logo is illuminated on a wall during a Microsoft launch event to introduce the new Microsoft Surface laptop and Windows 10 S operating system, May 2, 2017 in New York City. The Windows 10 S operating system is geared toward the education market and is Microsoft's answer to Google's Chrome OS. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Microsoft is pulling out of an investment in an Israeli facial recognition technology developer as part of a broader policy shift to halt any minority investments in facial recognition startups, the company announced late last week.

The decision to withdraw its investment from AnyVision, an Israeli company developing facial recognition software, came as a result of an investigation into reports that AnyVision's technology was being used by the Israeli government to surveil residents in the West Bank.

The investigation, conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his team at Covington & Burling, confirmed that AnyVision's technology was used to monitor border crossings between the West Bank and Israel, but did not "power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank."

Microsoft's venture capital arm, M12 Ventures, backed AnyVision as part of the company's $74 million financing round which closed in June 2019. Investors who continue to back the company include DFJ Growth and OG Technology Partners, LightSpeed Venture Partners, Robert Bosch GmbH, Qualcomm Ventures, and Eldridge Industries.

Microsoft first staked out its position on how the company would approach facial recognition technologies in 2018, when President Brad Smith issued a statement calling on government to come up with clear regulations around facial recognition in the U.S.

Smith's calls for more regulation and oversight became more strident by the end of the year, when Microsoft issued a statement on its approach to facial recognition.

Smith wrote:

We and other tech companies need to start creating safeguards to address facial recognition technology. We believe this technology can serve our customers in important and broad ways, and increasingly we’re not just encouraged, but inspired by many of the facial recognition applications our customers are deploying. But more than with many other technologies, this technology needs to be developed and used carefully. After substantial discussion and review, we have decided to adopt six principles to manage these issues at Microsoft. We are sharing these principles now, with a commitment and plans to implement them by the end of the first quarter in 2019.

The principles that Microsoft laid out included privileging: fairness, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance.

Critics took the company to task for its investment in AnyVision, saying that the decision to back a company working with the Israeli government on wide-scale surveillance ran counter to the principles it had set out for itself.

Now, after determining that controlling how facial recognition technologies are deployed by its minority investments is too difficult, the company is suspending its outside investments in the technology.

"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," the company wrote in a statement on its M12 Ventures website. "Microsoft’s focus has shifted to commercial relationships that afford Microsoft greater oversight and control over the use of sensitive technologies."