Amid the growing concerns of late about the face-recognition technology and its probable misuse by governments, security agencies and the likes, Facebook has announced it would shut down its face-recognition option and delete the faceprint data of more than 1 billion people registered on it.
Jerome Pesenti, Meta’s Vice president of artificial intelligence, announced this in a blog post on Tuesday when he said:
“This change will represent one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology’s history.”
Jerome affirmed that Facebook has been trying to weigh the positive uses of the technology “against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules”, noting that the company in the coming weeks will delete “more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates”.
This is coming on the heels of the parent company’s name change from Facebook Inc to Meta Inc, a name change it said won’t affect the social network, Facebook. The company had noted that the rebranding will help it focus on building the metaverse.
About 640 million people, more than a third of Facebook’s daily active users have opted to subscribe and allow their faces to be recognized by the company’s system after Facebook more than a decade ago introduced the facial recognition technology but softened its stance on it as it made it very easy for users to opt-out of the feature after facing serious scrutiny from courts and regulators.
In 2019, Facebook halted the process of automatically recognizing people in photos, while suggesting people “tag” them, and instead of making that the default, asked users to choose if they wanted to use its facial recognition feature.
A Professor of Technology Ethics at the University of Notre Dame, Kristen Martin believes the decision by Facebook to shut down its system “is a good example of trying to make product decisions that are good for the user and the company”, while adding that the move also shows the power of public and regulatory pressure, as the face recognition system has been the subject of harsh criticism for a while now.
It appears Facebook and Meta are looking at new forms of identifying people with Pesenti affirming that Tuesday’s announcement involves a “company-wide move away from this kind of broad identification, and toward narrower forms of personal authentication.”
“Facial recognition can be particularly valuable when the technology operates privately on a person’s own devices,” he wrote. “This method of on-device facial recognition, requiring no communication of face data with an external server, is most commonly deployed today in the systems used to unlock smartphones.”
The public scrutiny of face-recognition technology had researchers and privacy activists raising queries on the use of face-scanning software by various tech companies, citing concerns form different studies that the feature worked unevenly across boundaries of race, gender or age and also that the technology can incorrectly identify people with darker skin.
Nathan Wessler of the American Civil Liberties Union believes that in order to use face recognition technology, companies have to create unique faceprints for vast numbers of users, most times without their express consent and in ways that can be used to encourage systems that track people.
“This is a tremendously significant recognition that this technology is inherently dangerous,” he said.
Facebook had in 2020 asked ClearviewAI a facial recognition startup that works with the police to stop harvesting Facebook and Instagram user images to identify the people in them, with many seeing this move a hypocritical public show-off in the wake of different privacy accusations against Facebook itself.
The California based social network company appeared evasive when quizzed by users on how people could know if their image data was deleted and what Facebook would be doing with its underlying face-recognition technology.
On the first point, company spokesperson Jason Grosse said in email only that user templates will be “marked for deletion” if their face-recognition settings are on, and that the deletion process should be completed and verified in “coming weeks.” On the second, point, Grosse said that Facebook will be “turning off” components of the system associated with the face-recognition settings.
More than 6 U.S states and nearly two dozen cities have reduced government use of the technology in the wake of rising fears over civil rights violations, racial bias and invasion of privacy.
US President, Joe Biden had his science and technology office in October this year launching a fact-finding mission to look at facial recognition and other biometric tools used to identify people or assess their emotional or mental states and character, with UK regulators and lawmakers also taking steps toward blocking law enforcement from scanning facial features in public spaces.
The $5 billion fine and privacy restrictions the Federal Trade Commission imposed on Facebook in 2019, had the company’s settlement with the FTC including a promise to require “clear and conspicuous” notice before people’s photos and videos were subjected to facial recognition technology.
Facebook too has been enmeshed in a litany of controversies with the biggest public relations crisis recently being the leaked documents from former employee turned whistleblower, Frances Haugen showing the company is aware of the various harms its products cause while doing little to resolve them. She also alleged the Mark Zuckerberg owned company is prioritizing profit over the welfare of its users.