Meta logo unveiling

Meta days ahead: Facebook shuts down face-recognition system

Image credit: Rob Longert | Meta

Facebook has said it will shut down its face-recognition system and delete the faceprints of more than one billion people, as the company's new Meta brand beds in.

Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence for Facebook’s new parent company Meta, said in a blog post: “This change will represent one of the largest shifts in facial-recognition usage in the technology’s history.

“More than a third of Facebook’s daily active users have opted in to our 'Face Recognition' setting and are able to be recognised and its removal will result in the deletion of more than a billion people’s individual facial-recognition templates.”

Pesenti said the company was trying to weigh the positive use cases for the technology “against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules”.

However, it appears that Facebook is not abandoning facial-recognition entirely and will continue working on the technology, possibly with a view towards reintroducing it in future products. Pesenti wrote: "Looking ahead, we still see facial-recognition technology as a powerful tool, for example, for people needing to verify their identity or to prevent fraud and impersonation".

Pesenti also pointed out that Facebook halting the use of facial-recognition software will also inevitably mean that the automatically generated descriptions of images for the visually impaired will no longer add the names of people the system recognises in pictures.

Approximately 640 million people had opted-in to Facebook's automated facial-recognition setting. According to the company, it had already begun scaling back its use of facial recognition after introducing it more than a decade ago.

In 2019, the company ended its practice of using face-recognition software to identify users’ friends in uploaded photos and automatically suggesting they 'tag' them. In the US, Facebook was subsequently sued in Illinois over this feature.

Researchers, privacy activists and civil liberties advocates have spent years raising questions about facial-recognition technology, citing studies that found it worked unevenly across boundaries of race, gender or age. Concerns had also grown because of increasing awareness of the Chinese government’s extensive video surveillance system, especially as it had been employed in a region home to one of China’s largely Muslim ethnic minority populations.

Some US cities have already moved to ban the use of facial-recognition software by police and other municipal departments. In 2019, San Francisco became the first US city to outlaw the technology.

Professor Kristen Martin, a technology ethics expert at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, US, said this week's decision by Facebook/Meta “is a good example of trying to make product decisions that are good for the user and the company”. She added that the move also demonstrated the power of regulatory pressure, as the face-recognition system had been the subject of harsh criticism for more than a decade.

Meta’s newly wary approach to facial recognition follows decisions by other US tech giants, such as Amazon, Microsoft and IBM, to end or pause their sales of facial-recognition software to police, citing concerns about false identifications and amid a broader US reckoning over policing and racial injustice.

European regulators and politicians have also taken steps towards blocking law enforcement from scanning facial features in public spaces, as part of broader efforts to regulate the riskiest applications of artificial intelligence.

Facebook’s face-scanning practices also contributed to the $5bn (£3.7bn) fine and privacy restrictions imposed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2019. Following the agency’s year-long investigation, Facebook’s settlement included a promise to require “clear and conspicuous” notice before people’s photos and videos were subjected to facial-recognition technology.

Facebook’s announcement follows the unveiling last week of its new name for the parent company - Meta - although the social network itself will keep its familiar brand name. The new parent company name is intended to help it focus on building technology for what it envisions as the next iteration of the internet: the “metaverse”.

However, public response to both the name change and the metaverse concept has been decidedly lukewarm, with critics, comedians and the general public all expressing their indifference to varying degrees.

Scientist Matt Blaze tweeted: "Renaming Facebook 'Meta' solves the same kinds of problems that renaming 'torture' 'enhanced interrogation' did," referencing the CIA's infamous techniques for extracting information from suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile, Aldi Stores UK posted a tweet that said "brb changing our name", followed by a picture of a parody new logo that read simply: "Betta".

Many people noted the questionable coincidence of the corporate name change coming at a time when Facebook is facing severe criticism - and arguably its biggest public relations crisis to date since the Cambridge Analytica scandal - after hundreds of leaked internal documents from whistle-blower Frances Haugen showed that Facebook was fully aware of the real-world harms its products caused to many of its users, especially teenage girls, and that it often did little or nothing to mitigate the negative effects.

Now, the dramatic about-face(book) by the company regarding its use of facial-recognition technology has caused the more cynical observers to question the motives behind the move. However, Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, has cautiously hailed the announcement. George said the move potentially demonstrates that Facebook is openly questioning the technology's value and that the change will impact millions of people's lives.

"The fact that a company as big and influential as Facebook is coming out and acknowledging the harms of facial recognition is definitely a sign of the times," she said.

Facebook and Meta still has a huge task on its hands in turning the tide of popular opinion. Towards that end, Meta finally announced its new advertising agency this week, which will henceforth handle all media activity across Facebook and all other Meta brands.

Following a seven-month review, during which time several other contenders withdrew from the conversation, Meta has chosen Spark Foundry, part of the Paris-based Publicis Groupe, the third-largest agency holding company worldwide, with estimated revenue of $12.3bn in 2020.

Ironically, Publicis is known for already having a high-profile relationship with TikTok, one of Facebook's biggest rivals in social media.

“Spark Foundry will be responsible for strategic thought leadership, media innovation, planning and investment, cross-channel approaches, tools, tech and operations,” a Meta spokesperson reportedly told industry magazine Ad Age.

Facebook, aka Meta Platforms, spent $2.26bn on global advertising in 2020, up 44 per cent from 2019. The company's ad spend has seen a double or triple-digit percentage increase every year bar one since 2010, when Facebook spent a (by comparison) paltry $8m on advertising.

On the other side of the corporate ledger, Facebook brought in nearly $85bn in advertising revenue in 2020, despite embarrassing system outages, myriad scandals and rising dissent from the public, politicans and even its own employees.

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