It's not every day that Facebook announces it will stop using a controversial technology because of "growing concerns". “My jaw dropped when I heard the news,” tweeted The New York Times tech journalist Kashmir Hill, after Facebook announced it was shutting down its facial recognition system. After all, the company is not known for its concerns about user privacy.
Using facial recognition, Facebook was able to encourage users to "tag" people recognized by Facebook in photos for years. For example, a photo of a ski trip could be automatically placed on the timeline of everyone who was there. Facebook was also able to link accounts of people who indicated that they knew each other.
The move to retire the feature has been described by Facebook's recently renamed Meta parent company as "one of the biggest changes in facial recognition use" in technology history. It means that the facial scans of about a billion users will be erased from Facebook's databases.
Privacy organizations welcomed the announcement. "Facebook's goodbye to facial recognition is a pivotal moment in the growing national unease about this technology," said the US privacy organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The decision comes after a period of revelations that questioned the company's ethics. It also seems to be a break with normal Facebook business. Under the motto 'move fast and break things', the company has always been proud to take steps that would anticipate social developments, without waiting for the judgment of regulators or the outcome of a public debate. Now Meta is taking on a completely different note. In a statement, the company said there are "many concerns about the place of facial recognition in society, and policymakers are still developing clear rules to regulate its use." Because of this "ongoing uncertainty", the company believes it is "appropriate" to limit its use.
That statement is not for everyone. According to BuzzFeed tech journalist Katie Notopoulos, perhaps a billion people may have the feature turned on, but it's hardly used anymore. “In 2010, people posted photo albums with dozens of faces; people simply don't do that anymore," she tweeted. According to her, Facebook has turned "a dead growth hack" from the past "into positive reporting about ethics and privacy".
Facebook pioneered the use of facial recognition in 2010, but it has always been controversial. The EU forced the company to remove the feature in 2011. At the time, facial recognition was still automatically enabled on Facebook, while the company should have asked for permission from users according to European rules. It wasn't until 2018 that EU residents were again able to use the feature, but this time only with explicit consent.
In the US, facial recognition has also become more and more of a headache for Facebook in recent years. In a case brought by the US Federal Trade Commission, the use of facial recognition was one of the main complaints. Facebook settled for $5 billion in 2019. Last year, Facebook settled again for $650 million in a case in the state of Illinois, in which users accused the company of using biometric data, including facial scans, without permission.
Surveillance of citizens
After the technology was initially embraced by many companies and governments, concerns have been raised in recent years. Aside from privacy concerns, critics point out that facial recognition is being used by governments to monitor citizens. Police forces around the world use facial-recognition cameras in public areas to identify people. In China, the technology is being used to identify Uyghurs based on ethnic characteristics.
"The fact that even Facebook is stopping the technology indicates that the concerns that we have been expressing for years are well-founded," says Lotte Houwing of privacy organization Bits of Freedom. At the same time, she is skeptical. “It is not clear where Facebook draws the line. This feature is being discontinued, but the company also states that it does not rule out future applications.”
Meta isn't the first major tech company to limit the use of facial recognition. Amazon, Microsoft and IBM have previously decided to limit or suspend sales of facial recognition software to governments over privacy concerns and biases in the algorithms. For example, there are concerns that people with dark skin are less well recognized by the technology.