Facebook’s facial recognition program is shutting down

A facial recognition system on display in China.
A facial recognition system on display in China.
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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Facebook announced on Tuesday (Nov. 2) that it is shutting down its facial recognition software program. The company has been using the technology for a decade—much to the concern of privacy advocates, civil liberties groups, and regulators—to identify individuals in photos.

Facebook said it will delete facial recognition data entirely for 1 billion of its users over concerns about its potential misuse by governments and private actors. “There are many concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society, and regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use,” wrote Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence at Meta, Facebook’s parent company, in a blog post. He wrote there are some narrow use cases—like helping users into locked accounts—where Facebook will explore using the technology in the future, and publicly disclose those efforts.

Facebook appears to have decided the risks, both material and reputational, were too great to continue developing the technology.

Facial recognition has come under fire for aiding oppressive governments and enabling police surveillance. Since 2020, US technology companies have curbed their own use or sales of the technology: Amazon, IBM, Microsoft each announced last year that they would stop selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement following last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Facebook’s facial recognition lawsuit

Facebook’s own facial recognition practices had already led to expensive lawsuits. The US Federal Trade Commission’s $5 billion privacy settlement with Facebook in 2019 stipulated that the company needed to give more notice to users about how their data was being captured and used. It also paid $650 million to the State of Illinois for violating its biometric privacy law. Since the US still lacks a federal privacy law, the potential of running afoul of differing state laws continues. Today, only Illinois, Texas, and Washington have state laws regulating biometric privacy.

The benefits of photo-tagging technology for the social media giant, crucial to driving growth 10 years ago, are likely less relevant today. Its business goals are shifting. With about 3 billion users on its apps including WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, the company is refocusing from breakneck growth to increasing engagement with ecommerce, influencers, and the metaverse.

Getting Meta in the metaverse

Facebook’s decision comes just days after its parent company was renamed Meta, ostensibly to focus on building the metaverse, an immersive virtual reality version of the internet. CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks this will define our digital lives in the future by facilitating online interactions that feel like you are physically present with another person.

The embrace of the metaverse by Silicon Valley could be collecting an unprecedented amount of information about its users in the not-too-distant future. The metaverse could capture much more data about its users and how they interact with one another, valuable data to advertisers. Virtual reality is typically tracked with wearable goggles and gloves, which can sense and respond to motion, sound, and touch. Thus it will not just capture what we type, scroll, and upload, but rather every move we make and how we interact with others. If regulations aren’t effectively protecting user data on today’s internet, the move to the metaverse may pose a far greater challenge.