By Kurt Wagner
Nov 2, 2021, 7:00 PM – Updated on Nov 2, 2021, 9:00 PM
Word Count: 564
The social media giant has used facial recognition since 2010 to encourage people to tag friends or family members in photos and videos, and to alert people if another user uploads a picture that they’re in. It eventually added some privacy constraints, and in 2017 it let people opt out of facial recognition. In 2019 Facebook turned off the feature by default, though users could choose to turn it on.
Facebook on Monday said it will shut down this system for privacy reasons, and will delete more than 1 billion “facial recognition templates” it has collected over the years. More than a third of Facebook’s daily active users are currently using the feature, the company wrote in a blog post.
Artificial intelligence-based facial recognition is controversial industrywide — not just at Facebook — though the social network’s use of the technology led to a legal settlement that cost the company $650 million in 2020. In that case, Facebook was accused of illegally collecting biometric data about users without their consent.
“Every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and we want to find the right balance,” Meta wrote in the post. “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.”
Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have also been sued for their use of facial recognition software. Amazon, which sells Ring security cameras and other consumer products for home surveillance, has paused use of its cloud-computing unit’s facial recognition technology for law-enforcement purposes after claims that the system struggles with identifying people of color.
Meta’s move comes after years of intense scrutiny from regulators and privacy advocates, who say the company has been reckless with user data. Meta has developed a reputation as a company that doesn’t take user data protection seriously enough, an image that was highlighted by a $5 billion privacy settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in 2019 after an investigation into its privacy practices. Company executives are routinely called before lawmakers to answer questions about its business practices and data collection.
But Meta is now also trying to build a new technology platform, called the metaverse, where people will interact in online spaces as digital avatars. In order for the project to succeed, Meta will need buy-in from regulators, industry peers and potential users. Abandoning facial recognition technology could be step toward convincing critics that the company is taking these privacy concerns more seriously.
Menlo Park, California-based Meta outlined one of the downsides to eliminating facial recognition from the social network — Facebook won’t be able to identify people in alt text, a system used to help visually impaired users read a photo or video’s description, according to the blog.
Read a QuickTake about why Big Tech wants clearer rules on facial recognition
(Updates to add background on Facebook’s use of facial recognition technology, other issues with industry peers starting in fourth paragraph.)
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