Facebook shuts down face recognition system, delete data

PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) – Facebook said it will shut down its face recognition system and erase the faceprints of more than 1 billion people amid growing concerns about the technology and its abuse by governments, police and others.

“This change will represent one of the biggest shifts in the use of face recognition in the history of technology,” Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence for Facebook’s new parent company, Meta, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

He said the company was trying to weigh the positive uses of the technology “against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have not yet provided clear rules.” The company will delete “more than a billion people’s face recognition templates in the coming weeks,” he said.

Facebook’s face-off follows some busy weeks. On Thursday, it announced its new name Meta for the company Facebook, but not the social network. The change, it said, will help it focus on building technology for what it envisions as the next iteration of the Internet – the “meta-verse”.

The company is also facing its perhaps biggest PR crisis to date, after leaked documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen showed that it has known about the damage its products cause and often did little or nothing to alleviate them.

More than a third of Facebook’s daily active users have chosen to have their faces recognized by the social networking system. That is about 640 million people. Facebook introduced face recognition more than ten years ago, but gradually made it easier to opt out of the feature as it was dealt with by courts and regulators.

Facebook in 2019 automatically stopped recognizing people on photos and suggesting people to “tag” them, and instead of making it the default, asked users to choose whether they would use its face recognition feature.

Facebook’s decision to shut down its system “is a great example of trying to make product decisions that are good for the user and the business,” said Kristen Martin, professor of technology at the University of Notre Dame. She added that the initiative also demonstrates the power of public and regulatory pressure, as the face recognition system has been the subject of harsh criticism for over a decade.

Meta Platforms Inc., Facebook’s parent company, seems to be looking at new forms of person identification. Pesenti said Tuesday’s announcement involves a “company-wide move away from this kind of broad identification and towards narrower forms of personal authentication.”

“Face recognition can be especially valuable when the technology works privately on a person’s own devices,” he wrote. “This method of face recognition on the device, which does not require communication of face data with a remote server, is most commonly implemented today in the systems used to unlock smartphones.”

Apple uses this kind of technology to power its Face ID system to unlock iPhones.

Researchers and privacy activists have spent years questioning the technology industry’s use of face-scanning software, citing studies that found it worked unevenly across racial, gender or age boundaries. One concern has been that technology may incorrectly identify people with darker skin.

Another problem with face recognition is that to use it, companies have had to create unique facial impressions of a large number of people – often without their consent and in ways that can be used to fuel systems that track people, said Nathan Wessler from American Civil Liberties. Union, which has been fighting Facebook and other companies over their use of the technology.

“This is a hugely significant recognition that this technology is inherently dangerous,” he said.

Facebook was at the other end of the debate last year when it demanded that face recognition startup ClearviewAI, which works with police, stop harvesting Facebook and Instagram user photos to identify the people in them.

Concerns have also grown due to growing awareness of the Chinese government’s extensive video surveillance system, especially as it has been employed in a region home to one of China’s predominantly Muslim ethnic minority populations.

Facebook’s huge stock of images shared by users helped make it a powerhouse for improvements in computer vision, a branch of artificial intelligence. Now, many of these research teams have been refocused on Meta’s ambitions for augmented reality technology, where the company imagines future users putting on glasses to experience a mix of virtual and physical worlds. These technologies, in turn, may give rise to new concerns about how people’s biometric data are collected and tracked.

Facebook did not provide clear answers when asked how people could confirm that their image data was deleted and what the company would do with its underlying face recognition technology.

Regarding the first point, company spokesman Jason Grosse said only in an email that the use of templates will be “marked for deletion” if their face recognition settings are turned on and that the deletion process needs to be completed and verified in “coming weeks.” On the second point, Grosse said that Facebook will “turn off” components of the system associated with the face recognition settings.

Meta’s new cautious approach to face recognition follows decisions by other US technology giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and IBM last year to halt or halt their sales of face recognition software to the police, citing concerns about fake identifications and amid a wider US bill over- police and racial injustice.

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