Facebook has announced that it will delete about a billion faceprints from its facial recognition system, effectively shutting down a program that involves so many people. Concerns have been cited about the very use of the technology.
Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook Inc, announced on Tuesday, Nov. 2 2021, that in the next few weeks will no longer use artificial intelligence (AI) to support features such as adding tags to photos.
More than a third of Facebook users has consented to the use of facial recognition software. That’s a billion people and the impending shutdown appears to be one of the world’s largest facial recognition programs.
But why Facebook has decided to close facial recognition systems? Let’s see briefly what this technology is about and what are the reasons that led Meta and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg to make this choice.
WHAT IS FACIAL RECOGNITION
Facial recognition technology is a type of biometric application used to identify people’s faces based on large amounts of data and algorithms that can analyse it.
Facial recognition, according to a report by Global Campus – South East Europe, has three different usages: verification (matching a face with a photo or video), identification (identifying a photo within a database), and classification (by gender, age, etc.).
The technology is already widely used in the private sector: for example, VITECO’s LMS platforms verify that the person taking an online course is actually the designated person and that someone else is not doing in his stead. This is an immediately effective application with little or no ethical implications: if you take on the course you agree to be checked because, in principle, you have an interest in attending the lesson.
On a broader scale, however, critical issues arise regarding potential violations of the privacy of entire real populations, as in the case of smart cities, or digital populations (the people who “inhabit” Facebook on a daily basis). The task of governments around the world and of supranational entities is to determine the extent to which the common good and private gain should be limited in favour of the inviolability of the individual.
FACIAL RECOGNITION: WHAT WILL CHANGE FOR FACEBOOK
For many years Facebook users were notified when they appeared in photos or videos posted by other people and received suggestions on who to tag in photos. These are the main features that will be discontinued following the closure of the facial recognition system on the social network.
In a blog post, the vice president of the company’s artificial intelligence department, Jerome Pesenti, said that more than a billion individual facial recognition templates will be deleted and, as a result, people who had consented to the program will no longer be recognized in photos and videos.
Users will no longer be able to turn on facial recognition for tag recommendations or see their names suggested for photos or videos they might be in. The social network will continue to encourage users to tag their acquaintances manually. Photos that have already been tagged will not be altered.
The change will also impact Automatic Alt Text (AAT) technology, which automatically creates picture descriptions for people who are blind or visually impaired. After this change, AAT will continue to work by indicating, for example, the number of people in a photo, but the descriptions will no longer include the names of the people recognized.
In the post, Pesenti extolled facial recognition in facilitating the use of the platform for the visually impaired and increasing engagement. These benefits, however, still need to be weighed against growing concerns about the technology.
At a time when regulators have yet to elaborate clear regulations, Facebook has seen appropriate to limit the use of the facial recognition system to specific areas that we’ll see at the end of the article.
WHY WILL FACEBOOK SHUT DOWN FACIAL RECOGNITION SYSTEM
“There are many concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society, and regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use,” Pesenti said. Facebook, like other large companies, has faced lawsuits and litigation over the years regarding the use of facial recognition. The move suggests that governments could adopt a further clampdown.
FACEBOOK'S CONTROVERSY OVER FACIAL RECOGNITION
In 2020, Facebook paid $650 million to settle a lawsuit that arose from a class action brought by U.S. users who claimed the social network had created and stored scans of their faces without consent.
Resistance to the platform’s facial recognition systems had already been expressed from 2010 onwards by the US Antitrust Authority, while in 2012 a Facebook application that intended to introduce the technology in the European Union was blocked because the necessary precautions regarding user consent had not been taken.
During the last week of October 2021, Facebook renamed itself Meta in favour of a focus on the “metaverse,” in which people can conduct their social or professional lives through digital representations of themselves, the so-called avatars.
Meta also owns the image-sharing social network Instagram and the instant messaging service WhatsApp, with around 2.8 billion people using its platforms.
The rebranding was rocked by the revelations of whistleblower Frances Haugen, who released tens of thousands of internal documents that shed light on Facebook’s failure to protect users and contain misinformation on its platform.
IS THIS THE END FOR FACEBOOK'S FACIAL RECOGNITION?
Facebook said that it will continue to believe in the usefulness of facial recognition technology but, for the time being, it will be relegated to very specific and mostly private areas.
“Facial recognition can be particularly useful when the technology operates privately on the user’s personal devices,” Pesenti said. On-device face recognition methods that do not require communication with external servers are now widely used by operating systems, for example, to unlock smartphones.
“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”, the Facebook spokesperson concluded.