Facebook is shutting down its facial recognition program and deleting more than 1 billion users’ faceprints, a company official said Tuesday.
The move means more than one-third of Facebook’s daily active users — about 640 million people — who have opted into the social network’s facial recognition option no longer will be automatically recognized in photos and videos, said Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence at Meta, the newly named parent company of Facebook, in a blog post.
Also affected: Facebook’s automatic alt text system, which uses facial recognition and artificial intelligence to give those who are blind or visually impaired descriptions of images that let them know when they or a friend are in an image.
Facebook is taking this action, Pesenti said, because “the many specific instances where facial recognition can be helpful need to be weighed against growing concerns about the use of this technology as a whole.”
In addition to societal concerns about how facial recognition may be used, “regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use,” he said. “Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”
Consumer privacy groups considered Facebook’s decision on Tuesday a good one for users.
“It is welcome news that Facebook is not only shutting down facial recognition on its platform, but is also deleting the face scan data that it improperly obtained from more than a billion users,” Electronic Privacy Information Center president and executive director Alan Butler said in a statement to USA TODAY. “For far too long Internet users have suffered personal data abuses at the whims of Facebook and other platforms.”
Facebook’s action comes just days after CEO Mark Zuckerberg changed the parent company’s name to Meta as part of its strategy to focus on the metaverse.
“The next platform and medium will be even more immersive and embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it, and we call this the metaverse,” he said.
It comes amid continued criticism among politicians and in the media after leaked documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen — who last week testified before British Parliament — revealed the company knew about harms caused by Facebook and Instagram but failed to take action.
Facial recognition technology has become part of personal technology in the last several years with Apple letting iPhone X owners unlock their smartphones by using their faces in 2017. Samsung added facial recognition on its Galaxy Note S8 that year too.
Some states and cities have banned the use of facial recognition technology by police and other law enforcement. California Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 issued a three-year moratorium on the use of facial recognition in police body cameras, following similar actions in New Hampshire and Oregon.
Facebook’s move comes after other tech giants including Amazon, Microsoft and IBM paused or ended their sales of facial recognition software to police, amid concerns about misidentification of people, particularly minorities, with facial recognition.
For years, Facebook had taken criticism for its use of facial recognition.
Over the past decade, consumer watchdog groups have filed complaints about the network’s collection of biometric data with the Federal Trade Commission.
The most recent complaint came just months after the revelations of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which as many as 87 million people may have had their data improperly shared by that political targeting firm.
Subsequently, the company in 2019 ended the automatic feature of identifying friends in photos and suggesting users tag them.
EPIC, one of the consumer privacy groups, called for Facebook to end its facial recognition program in 2011, Butler noted. “
“So it is good and right for Facebook to make this change, but we should not be reliant on the voluntary actions of large Internet firms to ensure that user privacy is protected,” he said. “We need comprehensive data protection regulations in the United States and we need a federal Data Protection Authority to enforce them.”
Consumer Reports senior policy analyst Maureen Mahoney echoed the need for “comprehensive federal privacy protections,” in a statement. The organization had investigated Facebook’s facial recognition settings in 2019 and found some users could not opt out of the feature.
Those findings were cited in the FTC’s $5 billion fine of Facebook for privacy violations, issued in July 2019.
“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,” Mahoney said.
In addition, the Electronic Frontier Foundation tweeted: “Facebook has announced they will be deleting over a billion face recognition templates as they shut down their entire face recognition system. This is great news for Facebook users, and for the global movement pushing back on this technology.”
Still, Facebook did not commit to dropping future plans for facial recognition uses.
“Looking ahead, we still see facial recognition technology as a powerful tool, for example, for people needing to verify their identity or to prevent fraud and impersonation,” Pesenti said, adding that the company will continue working on the technologies and with experts.
“Every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and we want to find the right balance,” he said. “In the case of facial recognition, its long-term role in society needs to be debated in the open, and among those who will be most impacted by it. We will continue engaging in that conversation and working with the civil society groups and regulators who are leading this discussion.”
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