Facebook to Shut Down Facial Recognition System and Delete Billions of Records

Facebook’s newly-rebranded parent company Meta on Tuesday announced plans to discontinue its decade-old “Face Recognition” system and delete a massive trove of more than a billion users’ facial recognition templates as part of a wider initiative to limit the use of the technology across its products.

The Menlo Park tech giant described the about-face as “one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology’s history.”

The shutdown, which is expected to take place over the coming weeks, will mean users who have previously opted into the setting will no longer be automatically recognized in Memories, photos and videos or see suggested tags with their name in photos and videos they may appear in. Furthermore, the company’s Automatic Alt Text (AAT) tool, which creates image descriptions for visually impaired people, will no longer include the names of people identified in photos.

Facebook’s discontinuing of the program comes in the wake of sustained privacy and ethical concerns raised by the use of facial recognition that it could be abused to target marginalized communities, further racial bias, and normalize intrusive surveillance, leading to government bans across a number of cities in the U.S. such as Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Minneapolis, among others. In May 2021, Amazon announced it would indefinitely extend a moratorium on law enforcement’s use of its facial recognition systems.

The company said it’s making the change because of a need to “weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules.” That said, Facebook said it will maintain the use of face recognition in “services that help people gain access to a locked account, verify their identity in financial products or unlock a personal device.”

Facebook introduced facial recognition in 2010 as a means to automatically tag photos and videos with names based on a “face recognition template” it generates from users’ profile pictures as well as photos and videos that they have been already tagged in, alongside notifying users when they appear in multimedia content posted by other users and providing recommendations for whom to tag in the photos.

Although enabled by default at launch, the feature was scaled back and made an explicit opt-in in September 2019, following which more than a third of Facebook’s daily active users — about 640 million people — are said to have opted to turn on the setting.

If anything, Meta’s decision to move away from facial recognition appears to be a step designed to pre-empt any regulatory scrutiny following years of legal woes, including a lawsuit in the U.S. state of Illinois that took the company to court for violating the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) and using the tech to identify Illinois residents photos without their consent. The company, earlier this March, was ordered to pay $650 million to settle the class-action suit.

The development also arrives as Facebook attempts to rebrand and distance itself from a wide range of controversies that have plagued its products in recent years, what with the company recently coming under the lens for allegedly prioritizing engagement and profits over users’ safety and real-world harms exacerbated by its platforms.

“This is great news for Facebook users, and for the global movement pushing back on this technology,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a tweet.

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