This is significant – today, Facebook has announced that it’s shutting down its facial recognition program, and that it will also delete all of its facial recognition files, meaning that it’ll no longer be able to identify people in posted images.
As explained by Facebook:
“In the coming weeks, we will shut down the Face Recognition system on Facebook as part of a company-wide move to limit the use of facial recognition in our products. As part of this change, people who have opted in to our Face Recognition setting will no longer be automatically recognized in photos and videos, and we will delete the facial recognition template used to identify them.”
That’s a big change on a key element that the company has stood by for years, which has been sparked partly by ongoing fines and legal challenges, while also being driven by its limited value, in relative terms, when compared to the rising costs.
Facebook’s facial recognition systems have long been a cause for concern among privacy advocates, while the process itself has also cost Facebook billions in fines due to legal action over its use and process.
Back in February, Facebook agreed to a $650 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit in Illinois, based on its facial recognition process being in violation of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Facebook was also fined $5 billion by the FTC in 2019 over various privacy breaches, including the use of facial recognition technology:
“The FTC also alleges that Facebook misrepresented users’ ability to control the use of facial recognition technology with their accounts. According to the complaint, Facebook’s data policy, updated in April 2018, was deceptive to tens of millions of users who have Facebook’s facial recognition setting called “Tag Suggestions” because that setting was turned on by default, and the updated data policy suggested that users would need to opt-in to having facial recognition enabled for their accounts.”
Facebook says that its facial recognition systems have facilitated valuable use cases, like helping visually impaired users get more benefit from its apps, and alerting users when their image has been shared online, with more than a third of its daily active users having opted in to its Face Recognition program over time.
But the costs, and reputational damage, have continued to mount, which has now forced it to reassess the process.
Facebook hasn’t, however, ruled out future use of face ID, potentially through alternate tracking means and data collection.
“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. We believe this has the potential to enable positive use cases in the future that maintain privacy, control and transparency, and it’s an approach we’ll continue to explore as we consider how our future computing platforms and devices can best serve people’s needs.”
The New York Times also reports that Facebook’s parent company Meta has considered building facial recognition into its AR glasses project, with specific note of the privacy concerns and trade-offs involved. Those could end up being prohibitive, but it does show that Facebook is still weighing the value of face ID, and how it can be used to maximize its projects, even though it’s abandoning its original recognition systems.
Of course, theoretically, we won’t need facial recognition in the metaverse because we’ll all be avatars of cartoon characters and robots, and our actual visual ID will be whatever we choose, lessening the value of real identity either way.
Which will introduce a whole new range of its own privacy concerns - but it could be that, as part of Facebook’s future view, it doesn’t see as much value in facial recognition as a process either way, hence the decision to shut it down.
But really, on balance, the fines and penalties versus the broader benefit, from a raw numbers perspective, seem pretty clear.
Facebook will be rolling back its facial ID systems over the coming weeks.