Marketing Data & Privacy Social Media

Why Facebook is shutting down its facial recognition technology


By Kendra Barnett | Senior Reporter

November 2, 2021 | 5 min read

A decade after the social media titan introduced its facial recognition software, Facebook today announced it will be eliminating the technology and plans to erase the facial scan data of more than a billion users. Here’s what you need to know.

Face scan illustration with charts of data

Facebook is retiring its facial recognition software

What’s happening?

  • Facebook will close up shop on its facial recognition system, which has been in use for about 10 years. The social media platform will no longer be outfitted with the technology and will therefore no longer be able to automatically recognize users in photos. Alongside the decision, the tech company will delete the facial recognition data of more than a billion users worldwide.

  • In a blog post published today, Jerome Pesenti, the vice-president of artificial intelligence at Meta, Facebook’s new parent company, said, “many specific instances where facial recognition can be helpful need to be weighed against growing concerns about the use of this technology as a whole.” In particular, he cited worries about facial recognition in society at large – calling to mind growing pressure on tech players and lawmakers to improve consumers’ data privacy – as well as a dearth of regulations to govern the use of such technology. “Amid this ongoing uncertainty,” he said, “we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”

  • The change will also affect Automatic Alt Text, the tool that generates image descriptions for visually impaired users. These descriptions will no longer include the names of people in photos on Facebook (as it stands, the tool identifies people in approximately 4% of photos on the platform).

  • The change also means that users will not be notified when another user uploads a photo that appears to feature them. They will also not receive suggested tags when they upload an image to the site.

  • Meta will continue to invest in the development of facial recognition software. Pesenti said that the capability has a broad number of effective and ethical use cases, including helping people access accounts they’re locked out of, verifying identity in financial services and unlocking personal devices. He said the company believes that, deployed properly, the technology can be used while also maintaining privacy, control and transparency.

Why does it matter?

  • Previously, more than a third of all Facebook users had opted in to the facial recognition system.

  • However, the technology has received its share of controversy. It has been part of various investigations and may be under more scrutiny than ever amid growing data privacy concerns from both consumers and lawmakers. Privacy experts have, for a number of years, raised concerns about the technology’s ethical implications. In fact, the social media company stopped using its facial recognition tools years ago in some European markets per requests by regulators and privacy experts – Facebook was even found to be in violation of German and EU data protection laws in 2011.

  • The decision comes just months after Facebook settled in an Illinois class action lawsuit for $650m for the company’s alleged use of facial recognition software and collection of users’ biometric data without consent.

  • The move comes less than a week after the company deciding to rebrand its product portfolio under the new name Meta, which has been met with mixed reviews. Zuckerberg says the company aims to pivot from being a social media company to become a metaverse company. Today’s announcement could aid in the company’s goal to refresh its public perception on the heels of recent scandals, including a Wall Street Journal report spelling out Instagram’s harmful effects on teens and amidst scathing whistleblower allegations.

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