Facebook Shutting Down Controversial Facial Recognition System, Will Delete Templates for 1 Billion Users

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Facebook announced that it will shut down the social service’s facial-recognition system, and as part of that will delete more than 1 billion people’s individual facial-recognition templates.

For more than a decade, Facebook has used the opt-in system to automatically recognize people in photos and videos shared on the service. But the technology has drawn fire from privacy advocates and regulators for years. Last year Facebook agreed to pay $650 million to settle class-action litigation alleging the tech giant violated users’ privacy via its photo-tagging feature that uses the face-recognition system — one of the biggest ever amounts in a privacy lawsuit.

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“We need to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules,” Jerome Pesenti, VP of artificial intelligence at Meta (the new corporate name of Facebook), wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

In the next few weeks, Facebook’s Face Recognition system will be shuttered as part of “a company-wide move to limit the use of facial recognition in our products,” Pesenti added.

The move comes less than a week after the company renamed itself Meta, reflecting Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to reposition the company as focused on building “metaverse” virtual experiences. At the same time, Meta/Facebook continues to deal with the PR fallout over a spate of damaging articles in recent weeks. The stories have been based on internal documents (called the “Facebook Papers”) provided to media outlets by whistleblowers who assert executives have downplayed or ignored safety issues on the company’s platforms in favor of maximizing profits.

The decision to discontinue the system required evaluating tradeoffs: With the shutdown, Facebook’s Automatic Alt Text (AAT) system, which creates image descriptions for blind and visually impaired people, will no longer include the names of people ID’d in photos (but will function normally otherwise). AAT currently identifies people in about 4% of photos. After the change, AAT will still be able to recognize how many people are in a photo but will no longer attempt to identify who each person is using facial recognition, according to Pesenti.

Although the Facebook Face Recognition is being shut down, “We’ll still encourage people to tag posts manually, to help you and your friends know who is in a photo or video,” Pesenti wrote.

And Facebook and Meta continue to view facial-recognition technology as a powerful tool for certain applications, according to Pesenti. For example, it can be used for people to verify their identity or to prevent fraud and impersonation. “We will continue working on these technologies and engaging outside experts,” he wrote.

More than one-third of Facebook’s daily active users have opted in to the Face Recognition setting since it was introduced in December 2010, according to Facebook. The company reported 1.93 billion average daily active users on Facebook for September 2021.

A study by Consumer Reports in 2019 found that Facebook misrepresented steps that certain users needed to take to control facial-recognition technology. That research was cited in the FTC’s record-setting $5 billion settlement with Facebook over privacy violations.

“We commend Facebook’s decision to shut down its facial recognition program, especially given the company’s history of misleading consumers over the use of the technology,” Maureen Mahoney, senior policy analyst at CR, said in a statement. However, Mahoney added, Congress must enact stronger federal privacy laws to ensure consumers are protected with respect to facial-recognition applications more broadly.

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