Explained: What Led Facebook To Close Facial Recognition System And Erase 1 Billion People's Faceprint Data

by Bhaswati Guha Majumder - Nov 3, 2021 02:15 PM +05:30 IST
Explained: What Led Facebook To Close Facial Recognition System And Erase 1 Billion People's Faceprint DataFacebook (freepik)
Snapshot
  • Face recognition was first deployed by Facebook more than a decade ago.

    The company has now said that it will shut down its face-recognition system and wipe the faceprints of more than one billion individuals amidst rising concerns about the about the technology and its misuse.

In response to rising worries about the technology and its misuse by authorities, the social media giant Facebook said that it will shut down its face-recognition system and wipe the faceprints of more than one billion individuals.

Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence for Facebook’s new parent company, Meta, wrote in a blog post on 2 November: “This change will represent one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology’s history.”

“More than a third of Facebook’s daily active users have opted into our Face Recognition setting and are able to be recognised, and its removal will result in the deletion of more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates,” the post added.

He also said that the company was weighing the technology's positive applications against mounting societal concerns, “especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules”.

This decision comes after a hectic few weeks. Facebook unveiled its new name, Meta, for the corporation, but not the social network, last week. The move, it claims, would allow it to focus on developing technology for the “metaverse,” which it envisions as the next incarnation of the internet.

The corporation is also dealing with what may be its worst public relations crisis to date after records disclosed by whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that it was aware of the problems caused by its products but did little or nothing to ameliorate them.

Facial Recognition

More than a third of Facebook's daily active users have agreed to have their faces recognised by the platform. This equates to approximately 640 million individuals.

Face recognition was first deployed by Facebook more than a decade ago, but as the company faced criticism from courts and authorities, it progressively made it easier to opt-out of the tool.

In 2019, Facebook ceased automatically detecting people in photographs and suggested that they be tagged by people and instead allowed users to choose whether or not they wanted to utilise its facial recognition tool. Now, the company has decided to shut down the facial recognition system in the coming weeks.

According to Kristen Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame, Facebook's choice to shut down the system “is a good example of trying to make product decisions that are good for the user and the company”.

She went on to say that the change underscores the power of public and regulatory pressure, given that the facial recognition system has been criticised for more than a decade.

However, Facebook's parent firm, Meta Platforms Inc., appears to be exploring new methods of identifying people. According to Pesenti, the latest announcement is part of a company-wide shift away from broad identification and “toward narrower forms of personal authentication”.

He said that facial recognition technology can be especially beneficial when used discreetly on a person's own devices. According to him, this form of on-device facial recognition, which requires no exchange of face data with an external server, is most widely employed in smartphone unlocking systems today. For example, this type of technology is used by Apple to power its Face ID system for unlocking iPhones.

But researchers and privacy advocates have questioned the internet industry's use of face-scanning software for years, citing studies that revealed it worked unevenly across racial, gender and age lines. Concerns have also grown as more people become aware of the Chinese government's vast video monitoring system, which has been deployed in a region with a strong Muslim ethnic minority population.

However, Facebook did not provide specific responses to the query about how consumers could verify that their image data had been erased and what the corporation planned to do with its underlying face-recognition technology.

But according to a response by company spokesperson Jason Grosse, if their face-recognition settings are turned on, user templates will be "marked for deletion," and the deletion procedure should be finished and verified in the "coming weeks". He also noted that Facebook will switch off the system components related to the face-recognition settings.

This decision also follows other initiatives taken by American tech companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and IBM. These firms decided last year to cease or pause their sales of facial recognition software to police, citing worries about false identifications and amid a broader awakening in the United States about policing and racial inequality.

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