Meta Halts Face Recognition Opt-In, Continues Development

Facebook parent Meta has announced it is shutting down the social network’s facial recognition technology program, deleting more than a billion individual face templates. Even users who have opted in will no longer be automatically recognized in photos and videos, according to the company. Meta vice president of artificial intelligence Jerome Pesenti emphasized the technology’s helpfulness in auto-generated image descriptions for the blind and visually impaired, conceding it was necessary to weigh “the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules.”

Facebook’s tech “has fueled privacy concerns, government investigations, a class-action lawsuit and regulatory woes,” reports The New York Times. The decision to add facial recognition in December 2010 was ostensibly to save time for site users by auto-populating tag suggestions. The result, over 10-plus years, is that “Facebook now has built one of the largest repositories of digital photos in the world, partly thanks to this software.”

More than a third of Facebook’s global daily active users — estimated by Statista at 1.93 billion as of 2021 — have opted-in on facial recognition, Pesenti wrote in a blog post announcing the program’s termination. Face recognition technology has advanced to the point where it increasingly generates heated public debate, with allegations of misuse by citizens, governments, law enforcement and corporations worldwide.

In China, NYT reports, “authorities use the capabilities to track and control the Uyghurs, a largely Muslim minority. In the United States, law enforcement has turned to the software to aid policing, leading to fears of overreach and mistaken arrests. Some cities and states have banned or limited the technology to prevent potential abuse.”

Facebook claims to have used facial-recognition capabilities only on its own site and says it did not sell the data to third parties. Alan Butler, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), had harsh words for Facebook, according to The Verge, which quoted Butler as calling on Meta “to prevent its photos from being used to power other companies’ facial recognition systems, such as Clearview AI and PimEyes, startups that have scraped photos from the public web, including from Facebook and from its sister app, Instagram.”

When the Federal Trade Commission in 2019 fined Facebook $5 billion to settle privacy issues regarding facial recognition technology it was on the heels of a 2018 FTC complaint filed by EPIC. “Every other modern democratic society and country has a data protection regulator,” Butler said. “The law is not well designed to address these problems. We need more clear legal rules and principles and a regulator that is actively looking into these issues day in and day out.”

“Looking ahead,” Pesenti writes, Facebook will continue developing facial recognition capabilities. “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.”

Related:
Clearview AI Ordered to Delete All Facial Recognition Data Belonging to Australians, The Verge, 11/3/21
Meta Makes Changes to Marketing Strategy Amid Scandals, The New York Times, 11/2/21