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The Privacy Advisor | Facebook to close its facial recognition system, but will it start a paradigm shift? Related reading: Facebook researching augmented reality tools




Facebook said it plans to shut down its facial recognition system this month and delete the face prints of more than 1 billion users, a change the company said will “represent one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology’s history.”  

In announcing the change Tuesday, Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence at Facebook’s newly named parent company Meta, said it is “part of a company-wide move away from this kind of broad identification, and toward narrower forms of personal authentication.”

“We need to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules,” Pesenti said.

Introduced in 2010, Facebook’s facial recognition feature automatically identified individuals appearing in users’ digital photos and suggested users “tag” them to link their accounts to the image. Pesenti said users who opted in to the feature will no longer be automatically recognized in photos and videos and the facial recognition template used to identify them will be deleted. This includes services that help users access locked accounts, verify identities on financial products, or unlock a personal device, he said.

“These are places where facial recognition is both broadly valuable to people and socially acceptable, when deployed with care. While we will continue working on use cases like these, we will ensure people have transparency and control over whether they are automatically recognized,” Pesenti said.

The change follows the company’s late October announcement that its applications and technologies will come together under one company brand, Meta, which it described as “the next evolution in a long line of social technologies.” It also comes as Facebook faces scrutiny from the public, lawmakers and regulators, and over technology that has raised concerns from privacy advocates for years.

'A flashpoint in the privacy debate' 

VLP Law Group Partner Michael Whitener, CIPP/A, CIPP/C, CIPP/E, CIPP/G, CIPP/US, CIPM, CIPT, FIP, said facial recognition technology “has become a particular flashpoint in the privacy debate because of its unique potential for abuse,” like mass surveillance, racial profiling or marketing. Facebook and other tech companies — including Amazon, IBM and Microsoft — scaling back facial recognition use represents “at least a pause, if not a paradigm shift, until appropriate regulatory controls can be put in place,” he said.  

“Facebook has clearly read the tea leaves and decided that the usefulness of the technology is outweighed by the risks it poses,” Whitener said. “Undoubtedly, other companies using or considering the use of facial recognition technologies are going to take a beat when they see a company like Facebook backing away. Facebook’s logic is compelling: given the uncertainties about the proper place of this technology in society, it’s best to rein in its use for now.”

A pause in large tech companies’ use of facial recognition technologies will provide a chance for regulation to catch up to “rapid technological developments,” Whitener said. In particular, regulatory guardrails can be put in place to ensure transparency, fairness and appropriate notice and consent, he said.

While Consumer Reports Senior Policy Analyst Maureen Mahoney said the organization commends Facebook’s decision, she said “real privacy can’t be guaranteed without comprehensive federal privacy protections.” Mahoney said a Consumer Reports investigation found Facebook misrepresented steps users needed to take to control its facial recognition technology, which was cited the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s 2019 $5 billion settlement with Facebook over privacy concerns.

“We call on Congress to enact strong privacy legislation and to adequately fund the Commission so that it has the resources it needs to enforce the law,” Mahoney said. “In addition, we urge the FTC to aggressively use its existing powers and issue regulations to protect online privacy.”

This past March, Facebook agreed to a $650 million class-action settlement alleging its “tag suggestions” feature violated the Illinois Biometric Information Protection Act by collecting and storing digital scans of individuals faces without notice or consent. The settlement affected approximately 1.6 million Facebook users.  

'A decade's long fight'

Founder and CEO of Chicago-based Edelson PC, Jay Edelson, who filed the class-action suit, said “this has been a decade’s long fight.”

“We have long argued that — along with geolocation data — biometric collection poses the largest threat to our privacy,” he said. “Thus, we are happy that Facebook has conceded the fight and expect that other companies will also come to the same realization that Facebook has — that trading on Americans’ biometric information is bad for branding.”

Edelson also noted the timing of the decision, which comes amid a “wave of negative information” about the platform, from concerns around its impact on children and teens’ body image and depression, to political implications and more.

“While Facebook hopes this public announcement will serve as some signal it is on a different path, at the same time it has announced that it is creating a ‘metaverse,’ essentially inviting the world to live within Facebook,” Edelson said. “In doing so, Facebook is making clear that, even as it drops one of the major battles over the fight for our privacy, it is gearing up for a much more significant war.”

The decision was welcomed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has long advocated for a ban on government use of facial recognition technology. EFF Policy Analyst Matthew Guariglia said commercial use of facial recognition technology “presents its own range of privacy and security concerns.”

“Companies will continue to feel the pressure of activists and concerned users so long as they employ invasive biometric technologies like face recognition. This is especially true for corporate systems that process users’ biometrics without their freely given opt-in consent, or that store the data in ways that are vulnerable to theft or easily accessible to law enforcement,” Guariglia said. “Facebook’s step is just one very large domino in the continued fight against face recognition technology.”

Looking ahead, Pesenti said the company sees facial recognition technology as a “powerful tool” and will continue engaging outside experts and working on technologies “with privacy, transparency and control in place.”

“Every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and we want to find the right balance. In the case of facial recognition, its long-term role in society needs to be debated in the open, and among those who will be most impacted by it. We will continue engaging in that conversation and working with the civil society groups and regulators who are leading this discussion,” he said.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

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  • comment JASON FLINT • Nov 3, 2021
    Obviously good news, but difficult to bestow any praise on Facebook.  Rivalled only by the Chinese government in terms of mass collection of facial recognition data, this is really only a cynical step towards cleaning up the platform's appalling image and making it at least arguable that Facebook may no longer be worst in its class.  With the smartphone cameras of 3 billion users snapping and sharing photos at a rate which the Chinese government and autocrats worldwide can only dream of, this gesture amounts to little more than recognition of one of several social harms Facebook continues to inflict with relative impunity.