Facebook kills facial recognition tech amid privacy concerns

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook is shutting down its facial recognition system as a result of growing demands for privacy, and consequently, the company says, it will delete more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates.

Meta, the company that owns Facebook, announced the move yesterday, saying it needs to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns.

The facial recognition technology was deployed by Facebook a few years ago, as a way to prompt platform users to tag other people in photos and videos, and also notify them if another user uploads a picture they are in.

However, yesterday Jerome Pesenti, Meta vice-president of artificial intelligence, announced the company is putting an end to this.

“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,” he said.

“Ending the use of our existing face recognition system means the services it enables will be removed over the coming weeks, as will the setting allowing people to opt into the system.”

Big shift

Consequently, Pesenti says, this will lead to a number of changes on Facebook.

He explained: “Our technology will no longer automatically recognise if people’s faces appear in memories, photos or videos. People will no longer be able to turn on face recognition for suggested tagging, or see a suggested tag with their name in photos and videos they may appear in. We’ll still encourage people to tag posts manually, to help you and your friends know who is in a photo or video.”

This change will also impact Automatic Alt Text (AAT), a technology used to create image descriptions for people who are blind or visually-impaired.

“AAT currently identifies people in about 4% of photos. After the change, AAT will still be able to recognise how many people are in a photo, but will no longer attempt to identify who each person is using facial recognition. Otherwise, AAT will continue to function normally, and we’ll work closely with the blind and visually-impaired community on technologies to continually improve AAT.

“If you have opted into our face recognition setting, we will delete the template used to identify you. If you have the face recognition setting turned off, there is no template to delete and there will be no change.”

Writing on the company blog, Pesenti cautioned that every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and Meta wants to find the right balance.

“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.”

Clean-up campaign

This latest development comes shortly after CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed Facebook is set to spend more than R74 billion ($5 billion) on safety and security this year.

Facebook has faced renewed scrutiny in recent weeks after an ex-employee leaked a stockpile of documents that buttressed claims the company rated financial success over safety and security.

Since the revelations, Facebook has been on an intense campaign to rehabilitate its battered image.

First, Zuckerberg went on an offensive, addressing the matter directly with analysts during a call reporting on third quarter earnings.

“Good faith criticism helps us get better. But my view is that what we're seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” he said.

Zuckerberg’s discussion with analysts was followed by the news that Facebook was rebranding to Meta.

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