Facial Recognition

Facebook Is Shuttering Its Face Recognition System

Privacy advocates applaud the move.


Meta, now the parent company of Facebook, announced that it is shutting down its facial recognition system that identified and tagged photos loaded onto the social media company's platform.

"This change will represent one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology's history," notes a statement from Jerome Pesenti, the company's vice president for artificial intelligence. "More than a third of Facebook's daily active users have opted in to our Face Recognition setting and are able to be recognized, and its removal will result in the deletion of more than a billion people's individual facial recognition templates." The company said that it had made the decision to shutter its facial recognition system in the face of growing "concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society."

The fact that the company was fined $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission in 2019 to settle privacy complaints—including concerns over facial recognition—and settled a class action suit earlier this year for $650 million over violating Illinois' consent requirement for using biometric information, very likely played a role here too. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit noted in its 2019 ruling in the Illinois case:

Once a face template of an individual is created, Facebook can use it to identify that individual in any of the other hundreds of millions of photos uploaded to Facebook each day, as well as determine when the individual was present at a specific location. Facebook can also identify the individual's Facebook friends or acquaintances who are present in the photo. Taking into account the future development of such technology…it seems likely that a face-mapped individual could be identified from a surveillance photo taken on the streets or in an office building.

The concerns about the place of social recognition technology are well founded. For example, Facebook photos have been scraped without permission by the surveillance company Clearview AI, which has sold its tracking and surveillance services to numerous local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

"Facebook getting out of the face recognition business is a pivotal moment in the growing national discomfort with this technology," Adam Schwartz, a senior lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization, told The New York Times. "Corporate use of face surveillance is very dangerous to people's privacy."

Corporate face surveillance is dangerous because government agencies could one day demand access to all of the data amassed by companies in order to institute essentially a turnkey authoritarian surveillance regime. "Facial recognition is the perfect tool for oppression," write Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, and Evan Selinger, a philosopher at the Rochester Institute of Technology. It is, they persuasively argue in Medium, "the most uniquely dangerous surveillance mechanism ever invented." Real-time deployment of facial recognition technologies would essentially turn our faces into ID cards on permanent display to the police.

With respect to the future deployment of such technologies, the Facebook statement observed that facial recognition's "long-term role in society needs to be debated in the open, and among those who will be most impacted by it." Yes, it does.