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Facebook to shut down facial recognition system

Facebook has announced plans to shut down its facial recognition system and delete faceprints of more than a billion people.

Facebook’s facial recognition technology automatically identifies Facebook users in images and videos posted to the platform. While users had to opt into allowing themselves to be recognised, Facebook has now decided to remove this feature following increasing levels of concern regarding its use.

Before this announcement, the social network had already pulled back on its use of facial recognition technology in recent years. Back in 2019, Facebook stopped using facial recognition technology to identify users’ friends in uploaded content, instead suggesting they “tag” them. In the same year, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban its use.

Facebook’s vice president of artificial intelligence, Jerome Pesenti, wrote in a blog: “This change will represent one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology’s history.

“There are many concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society, and regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use.

“Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”

Decision follows growing pressure on Facebook

Facebook’s use of technology and concerns around how it deals with privacy issues has long been controversial. Pressure had intensified recently after ex-Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked documents showing Facebook knew about the harms associated with its products but failed to mitigate them.

Facebook’s recent announcement that it was changing its company name to Meta was largely seen as an attempt to rebrand and move on from these controversies. Shutting down its facial recognition system will likely be seen to have similar motivations.

Where did facial recognition all go wrong for Facebook?

Facial recognition technology has become increasingly commonplace as a security feature for businesses and hospitals, among other institutions, in recent years. Recent attempts by nine schools in Scotland to introduce facial recognition technology hit the skids when the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) launched an investigation. Critics of facial recognition technology have long spoken about the potential for it to compromise privacy, lead to discrimination, and normalise surveillance. These are among the reasons why there is some stepping back from such technologies at present.

On Facebook’s part, the social media giant said that more than one-third of its users had given permission to be identified by its facial recognition tools. In announcing the end of its use of the technology, Facebook also reassured visually impaired users that its automatic text tool would continue to function normally. However, the tool won’t now include the names of anyone in the images being viewed.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the change would apply to accounts worldwide and that the facial recognition technology would be withdrawn fully by year-end.

Facebook still plans to use facial recognition technology, but on a limited basis

While Facebook is shutting down facial recognition capability within photos and videos, it still plans to use it on a limited basis, including helping users gain access to compromised or locked accounts and device unlocking.

Facebook isn’t the first business to distance itself from facial recognition, with Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM among the businesses that stopped selling such systems to police forces last year, citing concerns around false identifications.

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