Explainer: Facebook is shutting down its facial recognition system

A faceprint.

Facebook has announced that in the coming weeks it will shut down its facial recognition system and delete the database of face scans it has collected over the years. Here’s why this is a big deal.

How does Facebook use facial recognition?

Facebook has used the countless photos that people have added to their profiles and feeds to build a huge database of faces, which has allowed it to be able to identify individuals using facial recognition technology.

In December 2010, the social media platform introduced a feature that could automatically identify people who appeared in uploaded photos. Users would be prompted to click to confirm identities of people in their photos and they would be “tagged,” linking the photo to profiles. Facebook says one-third of users are opted in to this feature.

Facial recognition is also used to identify impersonation accounts and help the visually impaired know who is in a photo.

Why is Facebook ending its facial recognition program?

The company says it wants to limit its use because there are “many concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society,” with regulators struggling to keep up with the tech’s development.

This comes shortly after the release of documents known as the Facebook Papers, which paint Facebook as a company that knows about certain harmful effects of its services but has failed to take sufficient action to mitigate these effects.

Facebook has also contended with multiple lawsuits over its use of facial recognition, with the FTC fining the company in 2019.

What will happen to the faceprints?

Facebook will delete them, but it will still have the facial recognition technology, called DeepFace. No telling what it will do with it in the future.

How is facial recognition intrusive on privacy?

If governments and companies have your faceprint, they can track your movements, habits, preferences, and more with the networks of cameras found on our streets, on our doorbells, and in our buildings. And because your face is generally not something that changes, someone with your faceprint will be able to track you forever.

While facial recognition can be convenient, public concern over the tech is high. In a 2020 ExpressVPN survey, 68% of U.S. adults said they’re concerned with the growing ubiquity of facial recognition technology.

Does this have anything to do with Facebook changing its name?

The company that owns the Facebook social media site, formerly also called Facebook, announced a name change to Meta Platforms a few days ago. The company says this name highlights its desire to focus on creating a “metaverse”—a future version of the internet made up of 3D spaces—with its variety of products. But a rebrand also signals to critics an effort to distance itself from the scrutiny and controversy that Facebook has courted, notably in the privacy sphere.

So is ending facial recognition related to the name change? One could construe this move as related to a broader effort of improving its image. But it is likely that Meta also sees facial recognition as costly legal minefield that they’d rather do without.

What does Facebook’s move mean for facial recognition tech?

In stopping its use of facial recognition, Meta is joining other tech companies that have made similar moves. Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft announced last year their intention to stop building facial recognition tech for law enforcement and associated agencies, citing privacy concerns and algorithm biases.

So rather than being contrarian, Facebook’s rejection of facial recognition can be seen as conforming to a trend within Big Tech and further backing calls for greater regulation.

Learn more about facial recognition and privacy

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Penny is an editor of the blog.