ACLU calls for a moratorium on government use of facial recognition technologies

Technology executives are pleading with the government to give them guidance on how to use facial recognition technologies, and now the American Civil Liberties Union is weighing in.
On the heels of a Microsoft statement asking for the federal government to weigh in on the technology, the ACLU has called for a moratorium on the use of the technology by government agencies.
“Congress should take immediate action to put the brakes on this technology with a moratorium on its use, given that it has not been fully debated and its use has never been explicitly authorized,” said Neema Singh Guliani, ACLU legislative counsel, in a statement. “And companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and others should be heeding the calls from the public, employees, and shareholders to stop selling face surveillance technology to governments.”
In May the ACLU released a report on Amazon’s sale of facial recognition technology to different law enforcement agencies. And in June the civil liberties group pressed the company to stop selling the technology. One contract, with the Orlando Police Department, was suspended and then renewed after the uproar.
Meanwhile, Google employees revolted over their company’s work with the government on facial recognition tech… and Microsoft had problems of its own after reports surfaced of the work that the company was doing with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement service.
Some organizations are already working to regulate how facial recognition technologies are used. At MIT, Joy Buolamwini has created the Algorithmic Justice League, which is pushing a pledge that companies working with the technology can agree to as they work on the tech.
That pledge includes commitments to value human life and dignity, including the refusal to help develop lethal autonomous vehicles or equipping law enforcement with facial analysis products.

ACLU calls for a moratorium on government use of facial recognition technologies

As facial recognition technology becomes pervasive, Microsoft (yes, Microsoft) issues a call for regulation

Technology companies have a privacy problem. They’re terribly good at invading ours and terribly negligent at protecting their own.
And with the push by technologists to map, identify and index our physical as well as virtual presence with biometrics like face and fingerprint scanning, the increasing digital surveillance of our physical world is causing some of the companies that stand to benefit the most to call out to government to provide some guidelines on how they can use the incredibly powerful tools they’ve created.
That’s what’s behind today’s call from Microsoft President Brad Smith for government to start thinking about how to oversee the facial recognition technology that’s now at the disposal of companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple and government security and surveillance services across the country and around the world.
In what companies have framed as a quest to create “better,” more efficient and more targeted services for consumers, they have tried to solve the problem of user access by moving to increasingly passive (for the user) and intrusive (by the company) forms of identification — culminating in features like Apple’s Face ID and the frivolous filters that Snap overlays over users’ selfies.
Those same technologies are also being used by security and police forces in ways that have gotten technology companies into trouble with consumers or their own staff. Amazon has been called to task for its work with law enforcement, Microsoft’s own technologies have been used to help identify immigrants at the border (indirectly aiding in the separation of families and the virtual and physical lockdown of America against most forms of immigration) and Google faced an internal company revolt over the facial recognition work it was doing for the Pentagon.
Smith posits this nightmare scenario:
Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge. Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech. Imagine the stores of a shopping mall using facial recognition to share information with each other about each shelf that you browse and product you buy, without asking you first. This has long been the stuff of science fiction and popular movies – like “Minority Report,” “Enemy of the State” and even “1984” – but now it’s on the verge of becoming possible.
What’s impressive about this is the intimation that it isn’t already happening (and that Microsoft isn’t enabling it). Across the world, governments are deploying these tools right now as ways to control their populations (the ubiquitous surveillance state that China has assembled, and is investing billions of dollars to upgrade, is just the most obvious example).
In this moment when corporate innovation and state power are merging in ways that consumers are only just beginning to fathom, executives who have to answer to a buying public are now pleading for government to set up some rails. Late capitalism is weird.
But Smith’s advice is prescient. Companies do need to get ahead of the havoc their innovations can wreak on the world, and they can look good while doing nothing by hiding their own abdication of responsibility on the issue behind the government’s.

“In a democratic republic, there is no substitute for decision making by our elected representatives regarding the issues that require the balancing of public safety with the essence of our democratic freedoms. Facial recognition will require the public and private sectors alike to step up – and to act,” Smith writes.
The fact is, something does, indeed, need to be done.
As Smith writes, “The more powerful the tool, the greater the benefit or damage it can cause. The last few months have brought this into stark relief when it comes to computer-assisted facial recognition – the ability of a computer to recognize people’s faces from a photo or through a camera. This technology can catalog your photos, help reunite families or potentially be misused and abused by private companies and public authorities alike.”
All of this takes on faith that the technology actually works as advertised. And the problem is, right now, it doesn’t.
In an op-ed earlier this month, Brian Brackeen, the chief executive of a startup working on facial recognition technologies, pulled back the curtains on the industry’s not-so-secret huge problem.
Facial recognition technologies, used in the identification of suspects, negatively affects people of color. To deny this fact would be a lie.
And clearly, facial recognition-powered government surveillance is an extraordinary invasion of the privacy of all citizens — and a slippery slope to losing control of our identities altogether.
There’s really no “nice” way to acknowledge these things.
Smith, himself admits that the technology has a long way to go before it’s perfect. But the implications of applying imperfect technologies are vast — and in the case of law enforcement, not academic. Designating an innocent bystander or civilian as a criminal suspect influences how police approach an individual.
Those instances, even if they amount to only a handful, would lead me to argue that these technologies have no business being deployed in security situations.

As Smith himself notes, “Even if biases are addressed and facial recognition systems operate in a manner deemed fair for all people, we will still face challenges with potential failures. Facial recognition, like many AI technologies, typically have some rate of error even when they operate in an unbiased way.”
While Smith lays out the problem effectively, he’s less clear on the solution. He’s called for a government “expert commission” to be empaneled as a first step on the road to eventual federal regulation.
That we’ve gotten here is an indication of how bad things actually are. It’s rare that a tech company has pleaded so nakedly for government intervention into an aspect of its business.
But here’s Smith writing, “We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology. As a general principle, it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government.”
Given the current state of affairs in Washington, Smith may be asking too much. Which is why perhaps the most interesting — and admirable — call from Smith in his post is for technology companies to slow their roll.
“We recognize the importance of going more slowly when it comes to the deployment of the full range of facial recognition technology,” writes Smith. “Many information technologies, unlike something like pharmaceutical products, are distributed quickly and broadly to accelerate the pace of innovation and usage. ‘Move fast and break things’ became something of a mantra in Silicon Valley earlier this decade. But if we move too fast with facial recognition, we may find that people’s fundamental rights are being broken.”

As facial recognition technology becomes pervasive, Microsoft (yes, Microsoft) issues a call for regulation

Microsoft launches new wide-area networking options for Azure

Microsoft is launching a few new networking features today that will make it easier for businesses to use the company’s Azure cloud to securely connect their own offices and infrastructure using Azure and its global network.
The first of these is the Azure Virtual WAN service, which allows businesses to connect their various branches to and through Azure. This basically works like an airline hub and spoke model, where Azure becomes the central hub through which all data between branches flows. The advantage of this, Microsoft argues, is that it allows admins to manage their wide-area networks from a central dashboard and, of course, that it makes it easy to bind additional Azure services and appliances to the network. And with that, users also get access to all of the security services that Azure has to offer.
One new security service that Microsoft is launching today is the Azure Firewall, a new cloud-native security service that is meant to protect a business’s virtual network resources.
In addition to these two new networking features, Microsoft also today announced that it is expanding to two new regions its Azure Data Box service, which is basically Microsoft’s version of the AWS Snowball appliances for moving data into the cloud by loading it onto a shippable appliance: Europe and the United Kingdom (and let’s not argue about the fact that the U.K. is still part of Europe). There is also now a “Data Box Disk” option for those who don’t need to move petabytes of data. Orders with up to five of those disks can hold up to 40 terabytes of data and are currently in preview.

Microsoft launches new wide-area networking options for Azure

Microsoft speeds up its Azure SQL Data Warehouse

Microsoft’s Azure SQL Data Warehouse, the company’s cloud-based database service for big data workloads, is getting yet another speed bump today. A few months ago, the company sped up the service with the general availability of its second-generation compute-optimized tier and today it’s doubling its query performance thanks to the launch of its new instant data movement technology.
Raghu Ramakrishnan, Microsoft’s CTO for Azure Data, tells me that instant data movement is the result of the company’s decades-long investments in database technology. “Given the fact that we’ve been doing data management for decades now, we can marry data storage and management,” he noted and stressed that I/O bandwidth tends to be a major bottleneck for many of the analytics workloads that Microsoft’s customers use SQL Data Warehouse for. In a distributed system like a data warehouse, moving data becomes a problem — one that is typically managed by yet another layer in the system. “In these systems, when you take simple standard operations like joins, if the tables are not already nicely organized by an attribute, you have to sort on one or the other, so you have to move data across the network at a rapid clip, Ramakrishnan said.

To do away with this bottleneck, Microsoft has now integrated the data movement layer right into the SQL Server engine that powers its data warehousing service. Thanks to this, every SQL Server node can now create intermediary results and move the data as necessary.
Never shy to compare its services to its competitors, Microsoft also notes that Azure SQL Data Warehouse can support up to 128 concurrent queries now, compared to the 50 that Amazon Redshift is currently limited to.

Microsoft speeds up its Azure SQL Data Warehouse

Microsoft wants to make you a better team player by nudging you into submission

Microsoft announced a number of new tools for its MyAnalytics tool for Office 365 users today that are geared toward giving employees more data about how they work, as well as ways to improve how teams work together. In today’s businesses, everybody has to be a team player, after all, and if you want to bring technology to bear on this, you first need data — and once you have data, you can go into full-on analytics mode and maybe even throw in a smidge of machine learning, too.
So today, Microsoft is launching two new products: Workplace Analytics and MyAnalytics nudges. Yes, Office 365 will now nudge you to be a better team player. “Building better teams starts with transparent, data-driven dialog—but no one is perfect and sticking to good collaboration habits can be challenging in a fast-paced job,” Microsoft’s Natalie McCullough and Noelle Beaujon, using language only an MBA could love, write in today’s announcement.
I’m not sure what exactly that means or whether I have good collaboration habits or not, but in practice, Office 365 can now nudge you when you need more focus time as your calendar fills up, for example. You can block off those times without leaving your Inbox (or, I guess, you could always ignore this and just set up a standing block of time every day where you don’t accept meetings and just do your job…). MyAnalytics can also now nudge you to delegate meetings to a co-worker when your schedule is busy (because your co-workers aren’t busy and will love you for putting more meetings on your calendar) and tell you to avoid after-hours emails as you draft them to co-workers so they don’t have to work after hours, too (that’s actually smart, but may not work well in every company).
With this new feature, Microsoft is also using some machine learning smarts, of course. MyAnalytics was already able to remind you of tasks you promised to co-workers over email, and now it’ll nudge you when you read new emails from those co-workers, too. Because the more you get nudged, the more likely you are to finish that annoying task you never intended to do but promised your co-worker you would do so he’d go away.
If you’re whole team needs some nudging, Microsoft will also allow the group to enroll in a change program and provide you with lots of data about how you are changing. And if that doesn’t work, you can always set up a few meetings to discuss what’s going wrong.
These new features will roll out this summer. Get ready to be nudged.

Microsoft wants to make you a better team player by nudging you into submission

Microsoft Teams gets a free version

Microsoft opened up the news floodgates this morning, in the kick off to its annual Inspire event in Paris. One of the more compelling announcements of the bunch is the addition of a free version of Teams.
The Slack competitor has been kicking around in some form or other since late-2016, but the $60 a year fee has likely made it a bit of a nonstarter for smaller businesses. After all, it’s Slack’s free tier that helped the work chat app gain so much traction so quickly. A free version makes a lot of sense for Microsoft.
Signing users up for Teams is way to get more feet into the door of its application ecosystem, which was once ubiquitous in offices. Once they’ve download teams, workplaces will be hooked into the Microsoft 365 suite.
The free tier actually brings a fair bit of the app to up to 300 people per workplace. Here’s the full rundown of features per Microsoft,

Unlimited chat messages and search.
Built-in audio and video calling for individuals, groups, and full team meetups.
10 GB of team file storage plus additional 2 GB per person for personal storage.
Integrated, real-time content creation with Office Online apps, including built-in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
Unlimited app integrations with 140+ business apps to choose from—including Adobe, Evernote, and Trello.
Ability to communicate and collaborate with anyone inside or outside your organization, backed by Microsoft’s secure, global infrastructure.

The company’s done a good job hooking in enterprise customers, but as it notes, SMBs constitute 90+ percent of businesses globally, so that’s a whole lot more devices to tap into. The free tier is available in 40 languages starting today.

Microsoft Teams gets a free version

Microsoft Whiteboard is available to all on Windows, iOS version coming soon

Microsoft previewed White Board last May, alongside the new Surface Pro, eventually rolling it out in public beta in December. The collaboration app just went live to all Windows users, as part of the deluge of announcements tied to the upcoming Inspire conference.
Whiteboard is kind of digital sibling to Microsoft’s large Surface Hub display. The company describes it as an “infinite canvas,” in a phrase cribbed from comics theorist, Scott McCloud. With the drawing app, users can sketch out notes and images with a finger, keyboard or compatible pen.

The app lets teams collaborate remotely, automatically uploading the final project to the cloud. The company says it’s also added a bunch of new features based on feedback during the beta, including, “text notes, the ability to add and manipulate images, enhancements to shape and table recognition, accessibility improvements, compliance with various global standards, and more.”
In addition to Windows availability, it will also be arriving on iOS and as a browser based version some time in the near future.

Microsoft Whiteboard is available to all on Windows, iOS version coming soon

GitHub Enterprise and Business Cloud users now get access to public repos, too

GitHub, the code hosting service Microsoft recently acquired, is launching a couple of new features for its business users today that’ll make it easier for them to access public repositories on the service.
Traditionally, users on the hosted Business Cloud and self-hosted Enterprise were not able to directly access the millions of public open-source repositories on the service. Now, with the service’s release, that’s changing, and business users will be able to reach beyond their firewalls to engage and collaborate with the rest of the GitHub community directly.
With this, GitHub now also offers its business and enterprise users a new unified search feature that lets them tap into their internal repos but also look at open-source ones.
Other new features in this latest Enterprise release include the ability to ignore whitespace when reviewing changes, the ability to require multiple reviewers for code changes, automated support tickets and more. You can find a full list of all updates here.
Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub wasn’t fully unexpected (and it’s worth noting that the acquisition hasn’t closed yet), but it is still controversial, given that Microsoft and the open-source community, which heavily relies on GitHub, haven’t always seen eye-to-eye in the past. I’m personally not too worried about that, and it feels like the dust has settled at this point and that people are waiting to see what Microsoft will do with the service.

Microsoft has acquired GitHub for $7.5B in stock

GitHub Enterprise and Business Cloud users now get access to public repos, too

Slack wants to make search a little easier with search filters

Slack’s search functions are getting another little quality-of-life update today with the introduction of filters, which aims to make search a little more granular to find the right answers.
The company also says searches are going to be more personalized. All of this is an attempt to get to the right files or conversations quickly as Slack — a simple collection of group chats and channels that can get out of hand very fast — something a little more palatable. As companies get bigger and bigger, the sheer amount of information that ends up in it will grow faster and faster. That means that the right information will generally be more difficult to access, and if Slack is going to stick to its roots as a simple internal communications product, it’s going to have to lean on improvements under the hood and small changes in front of users. The company says search is now 70 percent faster on the back end.

Users in Slack will now be able to filter search results by channels and also the kinds of results they are looking for, like files. You can go a little more granular than that, but that’s the general gist of it, as Slack tries to limit the changes to what’s happening in front of users. Slack threads, for example, were in development for more than a year before the company finally rolled out the long-awaited feature. (Whether that feature successfully changed things for the better is still not known.)
Slack now has around 8 million daily active users, with 3 million paid users, and is still clearly pretty popular with smaller companies that are looking for something simpler than the more robust — and complex — communications tools on the market. But there are startups trying to pick away at other parts of the employee communications channels, like Slite, which aims to be a simpler notes tool in the same vein as Slack but for different parts of the employee experience. And there are other larger companies looking to tap the demand for these kinds of simpler tools, like Atlassian’s Stride and Microsoft’s Teams.

Slack wants to make search a little easier with search filters

This is Microsoft’s $399 Surface Go

Microsoft dropped a pretty clear hint about this big news. After all, the latest addition to the Surface line has been over the past couple of months the subject of everything from early rumors to FCC approval to spec sheet leaks. And for the most part, the rumors were spot-on.
This is the Microsoft Surface Go. It represents the low end of the Surface line. The $399 starting price puts it well below the Surface Pro’s $799. More to the point, really, it puts the product firmly within spitting distance of the $329 9.7-inch iPad. Surface has long been an entirely different class, focused on creative professionals, with higher-end specs and peripherals, putting it more in line with the iPad Pro, perhaps.
The Surface Go is meant to be a kind of halfway point between the standard tablet and the convertible. Spec sacrifices were made in order to hit that price point, of course — though for most users the size is probably the most notable. That said, the 10-inch display might actually amount to a benefit, depending on what you’re looking for in a device.
When I met with the company, they pulled it out of a purse to make the big reveal. That depends on, among other things, how big your purse is, of course. For those still holding out hope for something akin to a Surface Phone, however, well, keep holding. The 1.15-pound Go may be the thinnest Surface yet, but a phone it ain’t.

As for the target demo, well, Microsoft clearly believes it’s just about everyone. For those who are already locked in to the ecosystem, there’s something to be said for getting the full suite of apps on a smaller but still relatively premium piece of hardware that includes 4GB/8GB of RAM and 128GB/256GB of storage. There also are some familiar software touches, like Windows Hello facial recognition for log-in.
Like the iPad itself, however, I probably wouldn’t recommend the thing for those looking to do a lot of typing or other office work. There are plenty of cheap Windows laptops that will do the trick. Remember those $189 Chromebook competitors the company announced last year?
The combination of the Go keyboard case and the smaller footprint means it won’t be ideal for typing. And while a Microsoft rep attempted to convince me that it’s possible to actually use it on one’s lap, let’s just say that it’s less than ideal. A plane’s seat-back tray table, on the other hand, is a pretty solid application. And the nine hours of battery life should get you through most flights. Of course, the keyboard case isn’t bundled with the Surface just yet, so that will raise the price another $99. 
One of the more interesting tidbits here: The proprietary Surface port is still here. That flies in the face of some of the early rumors and the larger trend toward USB-C-only charging. USB-C can still be used to charge, but the company tells me they wanted to keep the Surface Connect on board for legacy reasons. A lot of people are on their second or third Surface already, and some are apparently doubling up on devices.

The Surface Go arrives August 6, sporting Windows 10 S — a pretty clear indication that the company is also heavily targeting education here. Again, the price point will likely be a deal killer for public schools, though perhaps those who have the funds for an iPad per student will welcome the competition.
For the rest of us who aren’t interested in the limitations of 10 S, users can upgrade to the standard version of the operating with a “one-time switch.”

This is Microsoft’s $399 Surface Go