Facebook, now doing business as Meta, announced they are discontinuing the use of Facebook’s Face Recognition system. This means Facebook will no longer identify users in photos and videos. The company will also delete more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates.
Decade Old Feature
Facebook introduced Face Recognition over a decade ago, in December 2010. Back then, the function worked automatically. Facebook didn’t ask people’s permission. This changed when the EU forced Facebook to remove the feature in 2011. Some years later, the feature was re-introduced as an opt-in feature. However, people still had to sift through Timeline and Tagging Settings to disable the face-tagging feature, as it was turned on by default.
Face Recognition automatically identifies people’s faces. Users were able to tag their Facebook friends with a simple click, immediately linking their account to the image. Approximately a third of all Facebook users gave Facebook this permission. The feature allowed Facebook to build one of the largest repositories of facial profiles in the world.
All this is now coming to an end. Meta will delete more than a billion individual facial recognition templates in the coming weeks. The change will also impact Automatic Alt Text (AAT). This system creates image descriptions for people who are blind or have low vision. In the future, AAT descriptions will no longer automatically include the names of people recognized in photos. Any Alt text entered by the person who uploaded or posted the image will still be included.
Growing Societal Concerns
Jerome Pesenti, VP of Artificial Intelligence at Meta explained in a blog post that the company needs to consider growing societal concerns. “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. 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.”
Last year, Reuters published a report revealing that pharmacy chain Rite Aid used facial recognition software in hundreds of their stores across the US. Analysis of the data showed that stores in lower income areas and non-white neighborhoods were far more likely to have the software in use. Stories like this of course further alarm human rights advocates. They are worried about privacy violations, the high potential for discrimination, opaque decision-making, and more.
In February this year, Facebook settled a lawsuit filed in the United States back in 2015. US users pointed out that their biometric data was being stored without user consent. The $650 million settlement was one of the largest settlements ever in a privacy lawsuit. In total, 1.6 million Illinois residents received at least $345.
Lawmakers Limit Use of AI
In Europe, lawmakers took a big step forward towards banning the use of facial recognition after the European Parliament passed a resolution in July 2021. The resolution called for a ban on the use of artificial intelligence by the police and in judicial matters. The European Parliament said the AI tools in question carry substantial risks and could potentially lead to “challenges to the protection of personal data, human dignity, and the freedom of expression and information.”
The Parliament also called for a ban on the use of private facial recognition databases by law enforcement. It pointed to Clearview AI as an example, adding that the database contains more than three billion images. The Parliament stated that these pictures were collected “illegally from social networks and other parts of the internet.”
In 2021, Clearview is seen as one of the 100 most influential companies of the year. In July, the company successfully closed a $30 million funding round that now brings the company’s value to $130 million. A month later Clearview announced the formation of an “Advisory Board” to help them develop their photo identification technology. They claim 99+% accuracy for all demographics.
Still a Powerful Tool
Looking ahead, Meta still sees facial recognition technology as a powerful tool. “For example, for people needing to verify their identity, or to prevent fraud and impersonation. These are places where facial recognition is both broadly valuable to people and socially acceptable, when deployed with care.” Therefore, Meta will continue working on these technologies, while simultaneously engaging outside experts.
“We know the approach we’ve chosen involves some difficult tradeoffs. The changes we’re announcing today involve a company-wide move away from this kind of broad identification, and toward narrower forms of personal authentication.”