Facebook to shut down facial recognition system and delete data


PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) – Facebook has announced it will shut down its facial recognition system and remove facial prints from more than a billion people amid growing concerns about the technology and its misuse by governments, police and others.

“This change will represent one of the most significant changes in the use of facial recognition in the history of the technology,” wrote on Tuesday Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence for the new parent company of Facebook. , Meta, in a blog post.

He said the company was trying to weigh the technology’s positive use cases “against growing societal concerns, especially since regulators have yet to provide clear rules.” The company will be phasing out “over a billion individual facial recognition models” in the coming weeks, he said.

Facebook’s about-face follows a few busy weeks. On Thursday, he announced his new name Meta for the company Facebook, but not the social network. The change, he said, will help him focus on creating technology for what he sees as the next iteration of the Internet – the “metaverse”.

The company is also facing its biggest public relations crisis to date after leaked documents by whistleblower Frances Haugen showed she was aware of the damage her products had caused and often did little or nothing. to mitigate them.

Facebook did not immediately respond to questions about how people could verify that their image data had been deleted, or what it would do with the underlying technology.

More than a third of daily active Facebook users have chosen to have their faces recognized by the social network system. That’s about 640 million people. Facebook introduced facial recognition over a decade ago, but has gradually made it easier to turn off the feature, as it was under intense scrutiny from courts and regulators.

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

Facebook’s decision to shut down its system “is a good example of trying to make product decisions that are good for the user and the business,” said Kristen Martin, professor of technology ethics at the University of Our Lady. She added that the move also demonstrates the power of public and regulatory pressure, as the facial recognition system has come under heavy criticism for more than a decade.

Facebook’s parent company Meta Platforms Inc. appears to be considering new forms of identifying people. Pesenti said Tuesday’s announcement implied “a company-wide move away from this type of broad identification and towards narrower forms of personal authentication.”

“Facial recognition can be particularly useful when the technology is operating privately on a person’s own devices,” he wrote. “This on-device facial recognition method, requiring no facial data communication with an external server, is most commonly deployed today in systems used to unlock smartphones.”

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

Researchers and privacy activists have spent years raising questions about the industry’s use of facial scanning software technology, citing studies that found it to work in a way unequal across lines of race, sex or age. One concern has been that the technology may incorrectly identify people with darker skin.

Another problem with facial recognition is that in order to use it, companies had to create unique fingerprints of a large number of people – often without their consent and in a way that fed into people tracking systems, Nathan Wessler said. of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has fought Facebook and other companies for their use of technology.

“It is an extremely significant recognition that this technology is inherently dangerous,” he said.

Facebook found itself on the other end of the debate last year when it demanded facial recognition startup ClearviewAI, which works with police, to stop harvesting images of Facebook and Instagram users to identify people. that are there.

Concerns have also grown over growing awareness of the Chinese government’s extensive CCTV system, especially since it is used in an area home to one of China’s largely Muslim ethnic minority populations.

The huge repository of images shared by Facebook users has helped make it a powerhouse for improving computer vision, a branch of artificial intelligence. Today, many of those research teams have refocused on Meta’s ambitions for augmented reality technology, in which the company envisions future users wearing glasses to experience a mix of virtual and physical worlds. These technologies, in turn, could pose new concerns about how people’s biometric data is collected and tracked.

Meta’s newly cautious approach to facial recognition follows decisions by other US tech giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and IBM last year to end or suspend sales of facial recognition software at police, citing concerns about false identifications and amid a broader US awareness about the police and racial injustice.

At least seven U.S. states and nearly two dozen cities have limited government use of technology amid fears of civil rights violations, racial prejudice and invasion of privacy.

President Joe Biden’s office of science and technology launched a fact-finding mission in October to examine facial recognition and other biometric tools used to identify people or assess their emotional or mental states and character. European regulators and lawmakers have also taken steps to prevent law enforcement from scanning facial features in public spaces.

Facebook’s facial analysis practices also contributed to the $ 5 billion fine and privacy restrictions that the Federal Trade Commission imposed on the company in 2019 for facial recognition technology.

And earlier this year, the company agreed to pay $ 650 million to settle a 2015 lawsuit alleging it violated an Illinois privacy law by using photo tagging without permission. users.

“It’s a big deal, it’s a big change, but it’s also much, much too late,” said John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. EPIC filed its first complaint with the FTC against Facebook’s facial recognition service in 2011, the year after its deployment.


Ortutay reported from Oakland, California.

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