A top Microsoft Corp. executive is calling for the U.S. government to regulate facial-recognition technology, an area Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and other tech-giant rivals have made significant bets, and where Microsoft has made its own investments.
It is also the latest controversial topic Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, has taken on. He has recently challenged the Trump administration over the immigration travel ban and the separation of children from parents at the Mexican border. He also has weighed in on the role of artificial intelligence in society and tangled with the government over law-enforcement efforts to secretly search customer data on Microsoft servers in the U.S. and abroad.
Facial-recognition technology has become deeply integrated in tech giants’ products, whether the key feature for unlocking Apple’s iPhone X or identifying people in Google’s photos app.
In his latest missive, Mr. Smith tackles the potential “sobering” uses for facial-recognition technology, such as creating a database of everyone who attended a political rally or governmental tracking of residents as they move about without their permission or knowledge.
“The only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself,” Mr. Smith wrote in a blog post scheduled for Friday.
But he also challenged the notion companies could regulate themselves alone. Change won’t occur, he said, if a few companies adopt new standards while rivals ignore them.
Microsoft has developed its own facial-recognition technology, called Face. Among its customers is Uber Technologies Inc., whose drivers take selfies to verify their identity when they launch the app to start picking up passengers. Microsoft declined to say whether any law-enforcement agencies use Face.
Facial-recognition technology has been a lightning rod for criticism. Facebook’s use of facial recognition in photos uploaded to the platform drew a complaint from consumers to federal regulators earlier this year.
Amazon.com Inc. in May found itself embroiled in the contentious issue of government surveillance when dozens of civil-rights organizations called on the company to stop selling its facial-recognition technology, called Rekognition, to law-enforcement organizations.
In its response at the time, Amazon said the quality of life would be diminished “if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology.”
Microsoft was dragged into the debate a month later, when more than a hundred of its employees signed an open letter posted on an internal message board demanding the company no longer provide technology to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, over concerns about the agency’s role in separating children from their parents. Mr. Smith noted in the blog post that the ICE contract “isn’t being used for facial recognition at all.”
Write to Jay Greene at Jay.Greene@wsj.com