Facebook recently announced it’s changing the name of the company to Meta, but that’s not the only big change. Facebook is no longer using facial recognition to tag photos and is deleting over a billion people’s facial data. Here’s why.
“People who’ve opted in will no longer be automatically recognized in photos and videos, and we will delete more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates,” Jerome Pesenti, VP of Artificial Intelligence, said in a Meta blog post.
The social media giant has offered an opt-in facial recognition tool since 2019, and it’s pretty incredible just from a functionality standpoint. Someone posts a picture with you in it, and Facebook notices that you’re there and suggests you tag yourself in it.
On the surface, it seems like a simple and convenient feature, but it means a single company has a detailed facial recognition database of much of the world’s population. Sure, Meta says it’s an opt-in feature, but that doesn’t change the fact that its a private entity with so much data.
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In the blog post, Pesenti said, “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. Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”
That sounds like Meta is worried about government regulation regarding facial recognition, and the company is taking a proactive approach by removing the data and not gathering new facial information.
Facebook settled a lawsuit in Illinois in February 2021 accusing Facebook’s tagging tech of violating Illinois’ biometric privacy law. It saw the company agree to pay $650 million for allegedly using face-tagging data without user permissions. This is just in one state, and there could easily be other states and countries that pass similar laws in the future.
“We are pleased to have reached a settlement so we can move past this matter, which is in the best interest of our community and our shareholders,” Facebook said in a statement.
Meta also cited the reminded us of the positives offered by facial recognition in the post. “For example, the ability to tell a blind or visually impaired user that the person in a photo on their News Feed is their high school friend, or former colleague, is a valuable feature that makes our platforms more accessible. But it also depends on an underlying technology that attempts to evaluate the faces in a photo to match them with those kept in a database of people who opted-in. The changes we’re announcing today involve a company-wide move away from this kind of broad identification, and toward narrower forms of personal authentication,” Pesenti said.
The change will also make it so the social network can no longer use Automatic Alt Text, a technology used to create image descriptions for blind or visually impaired people. Clearly, the company feels like this is worth the tradeoff, as it wouldn’t make a move like this without really weighing both sides.
While those sound like a practical use of the technology, the company believes that outside pressure and the privacy issues with a company having that much facial data isn’t worth the tradeoff.
What about Face ID on iPhone? Meta acknowledged the difference between on-device facial recognition and a database of faces. “Facial recognition can be particularly valuable when the technology operates privately on a person’s own devices. This method of on-device facial recognition, requiring no communication of face data with an external server, is most commonly deployed today in the systems used to unlock smartphones,” the blog post reads.
In the end, Meta looks to be getting ahead of regulation and is responding to a lawsuit. Paying a $650 million settlement to one state is unpleasant, but if future states and countries were to sue the company over the same matter, it could be catastrophic for it. While we’d love to believe that Meta just had a change of heart and decided to put the privacy of its users first, that doesn’t seem likely.