Microsoft said it plans to sell its shares in the Israeli facial recognition company AnyVision, after former United States Attorney General Eric Holder had launched an investigation into the company, NBC News reported on Friday.
Microsoft's M12 corporate venture fund participated in a $74 million series A investment round that AnyVision announced in June 2019.
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Later that year, Microsoft hired Holder to investigate whether the use of facial recognition technology developed by the Israeli startup complies with its ethics principles.
The probe reflected growing unease about facial recognition surveillance in the United States and elsewhere, which civil liberties groups say could lead to unfair arrests and limit freedom of expression.
AnyVision is Israel’s most high-profile biometric recognition firm, particularly in facial recognition. The company notes that its software can be hooked up to cameras of all kinds and be installed and used immediately, requiring little computing capacity.
In July 2019, Haaretz-TheMarker learned that AnyVision is taking part in two special projects in assisting the Israeli army in the West Bank. One involved a system that it installed at army checkpoints that thousands of Palestinians pass through each day on their way to work from the West Bank. The product lets the army quickly identify whether the person passing through has an Israeli work permit, thereby shortening the wait at the border.
The army said in a statement in February 2019: “As part of a wide-ranging program to upgrade the crossings in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] through the addition of technology, 27 biometric crossings have been established and new identification and inspection stations have been added. The inspection procedure at the crossings has become more efficient and significantly faster.”
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AnyVision’s second project is much more confidential and includes facial recognition technology elsewhere in the West Bank, not just at border crossings. Cameras deep inside the West Bank try to spot and monitor potential Palestinian assailants.
In 2018, Microsoft announced facial recognition ethics principles, saying the company would "advocate for safeguards for people's democratic freedoms in law enforcement surveillance scenarios and will not deploy facial recognition technology in scenarios that we believe will put these freedoms at risk."
In an August 2019 blog post, AnyVision also said that it would announce an ethics advisory board and that it has a responsibility to prevent its technology's abuse. At the same time, it touted how facial recognition speeds up border crossings while helping law enforcement spot criminals.