Why is Facebook shutting down its facial recognition system and deleting ‘faceprints’?

Facebook has announced it is deleting about 1bn “faceprints” it used as part of a facial recognition system for photo tagging, citing concerns with the technology.

Meta, the company formally known as Facebook, announced on Tuesday it would end its use of facial recognition technology in the coming weeks. A third of Facebook’s users, or about 1 billion people, had opted into the service, Meta’s vice-president of artificial intelligence Jerome Pesenti said.

So is the company really concerned about people’s privacy, or is it just a public relations move?

When people opted in to allowing the use of facial recognition, Facebook scanned a “faceprint” of that user and used it to find photos and videos of them on the platform, and suggested tagging them.

It was also used to identify if someone else was impersonating that user on Facebook, and helped with accessibility for people with visual impairments by telling them who was in a photo.

Pesenti said while facial recognition technology is a powerful tool to verify identity, it needs strong privacy and transparency controls to let people limit how their faces are used. He noted there were “many concerns” about the place of facial recognition technology in society, with regulators still playing catch up.

“Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate,” he said.

Pesenti said facial recognition was most valuable when operating on a person’s device only – such as for unlocking iPhones – rather than communicating with an external server, as Facebook’s technology had operated.

It comes at a time when Facebook has faced widespread criticism over its attitude towards user privacy and safety, after the release of tens of thousands of internal documents from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

A spokesperson for Facebook said there would be no change to existing tagged photos or videos that were tagged using the technology, just that there will not be a suggested tag in the future.

People will still be able to add text and tags to their photos and videos, but Facebook won’t automatically suggest them.

Facebook says it will be deleted. If you opted out of the service before this, or never opted in, or deleted your account, Facebook has said the faceprint would not be retained.

Facebook has previously said that the only person who could access the faceprint was the account user, and a spokesperson confirmed there had been no other access to the faceprint information.

The spokesperson said Meta believes there are “a number of potentially positive use cases for facial recognition in the future” and it’s something the company will explore, but privacy, control and transparency will be front of mind.

“For each potential future application, we’ll continue to be public about its intended use, how people can have control over these systems and their personal data, and how we’re ensuring the technology lives up to our responsible innovation framework,” he said.

Meta is shifting its focus to creating the metaverse, and trying a whole bunch of new things at the same time as it battles against an increasingly negative public image in the past few months.

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