May 17, 2022

Facebook announced on Tuesday that it is shutting down its facial recognition tool and destroying the faceprints of more than 1 billion users, according to a company executive.

The change means that more than a third of Facebook’s daily active users, which is around 640 million people, who use the social network’s facial recognition feature will no longer be automatically recognized in photos and videos, according to a blog post by Jerome Pesenti, Vice President of Artificial Intelligence at Meta, Facebook’s newly named parent company.

In addition, Facebook’s automatic alt text system is affected, which employs face recognition and artificial intelligence to provide descriptions of photographs to those who are blind or visually impaired, letting them know when they or a friend are included in an image.

Facebook is taking this measure, Pesenti explained, because “the many specific instances where facial recognition can be helpful need to be weighed against growing concerns about the use of this technology as a whole.”

Along with social worries about how facial recognition might be used, “regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use,” he said. “Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”

Consumer privacy advocates hailed Facebook’s Tuesday decision as a win for users.

“It is welcome news that Facebook is not only shutting down facial recognition on its platform but is also deleting the face scan data that it improperly obtained from more than a billion users,” Electronic Privacy Information Center president and executive director Alan Butler said in a statement to USA TODAY. “For far too long Internet users have suffered personal data abuses at the whims of Facebook and other platforms.”

Facebook’s move comes after other tech companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM discontinued selling their facial recognition software to law enforcement, citing concerns over the misidentification of people, particularly minorities, through face recognition.

Facebook received criticism over the years for its use of facial recognition.

The most recent complaint was filed just months after the Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealed, in which up to 87 million people’s data may have been inappropriately shared by the political targeting firm.

The company discontinued in 2019 its automatic tool that identified friends in photos and suggested that users tag them.

Senior Policy Analyst at Consumer Reports, Maureen Mahoney, reaffirmed the importance of “comprehensive federal privacy protections” in a statement. In 2019, the organization conducted an investigation of Facebook’s face recognition settings and discovered that some users were unable to opt-out of the service.

These findings were highlighted in the Federal Trade Commission’s July 2019 $5 billion fine against Facebook over privacy violations.

“We commend Facebook’s decision to shut down its facial recognition program, especially given the company’s history of misleading consumers over the use of the technology,” Mahoney stated.