We didn’t see this coming: the shutting down of Facebook’s automatic facial recognition system will delete data associated with a billion users.

What the Meta?! Facebook shuts down its Automatic Facial Recognition System

In a surprise move, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has announced that it is shutting down the automatic facial recognition system on Facebook, and what is even more surprising is that the reasons given stem from a concern about what is right and wrong.

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Miracles still happen. Because that has never been a concern for Facebook, which has spearheaded the concept of pushing the boundaries of what is possible without a concern for whether it should be done at all.

Facebook has had to fight some big legal battles over its face recognition technology and user privacy concerns. This is likely a key factor behind this decision.

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The company now joins a growing list of US corporations who have chosen to exercise some form of caution with the deployment of face recognition technology. Others include: Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM, all of which stopped selling their face tagging systems to law enforcement.

Facebook Automatic Facial Recognition

What does this shutdown involve? Here are key points from Facebooks’s press release [1]:

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We’re shutting down the Face Recognition system on Facebook. People who’ve opted in will no longer be automatically recognized in photos and videos and we will delete more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates.

This change will also impact Automatic Alt Text (AAT), which creates image descriptions for blind and visually-impaired people. After this change, AAT descriptions will no longer include the names of people recognized in photos but will function normally otherwise. 

We need to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules.

Meta says that more than one third of Facebook’s daily active users have automatic Facial Recognition setting enabled. The shutdown of this system means that the data associated with more than a billion users will be deleted.

How does this impact those users? In the following ways:

  • Facebook’s technology will no longer automatically recognize if people’s faces appear in Memories, photos or videos.
  • People will no longer be able to turn on face recognition for suggested tagging or see a suggested tag with their name in photos and videos they may appear in. Facebook will still encourage people to tag posts manually, to help them and their friends know who is in a photo or video. 
  • This change will also impact Automatic Alt Text (AAT), a technology used to create image descriptions for people who are blind or visually impaired. AAT currently identifies people in about 4% of photos. After the change, AAT will still be able to recognize how many people are in a photo, but will no longer attempt to identify who each person is using facial recognition. Otherwise, AAT will continue to function normally.
  • If you have opted into Facebook’s automatic Facial Recognition setting, the template used to identify you will be deleted in the coming weeks. If you have the face recognition setting turned off, there is no template to delete and there will be no change. 

All of these changes will happen in the next few weeks, says Meta. The company says that the long-term role of automatic facial recognition systems “in society needs to be debated in the open, and among those who will be most impacted by it”.

This sentiment is a welcome one. The bigger question is, Is this the beginning of a new, more open company than we have seen in the last decade? Will this attitude reflect across the company’s products going forward?

It was just five days ago that the umbrella company changed its name from Facebook to Meta. If you have been wondering about the the renaming, the company is now called Meta, while apps, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp continue to bear their respective names.

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References

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Founder of MobilityArena. Yomi's journey in mobile started in 2001. Besides obsessing over mobile phones, he also started creating WAP sites (early mobile-friendly websites created with WML). He began writing about phones in 2004 and has been at it since then. He has owned over 200 devices, from Symbian, Palm, PocketPC/Windows Mobile, BlackBerry/BB10, webOS, Windows Phone, Firefox, Ubuntu Touch, to Android, iOS, and KaiOS operating systems.

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