Facebook shuts down facial recognition system after personal data concerns

Facebook has said it will delete more than 1 billion people’s individual facial recognition data in light of concerns around data protection and ethics. Concerns had been raised that facial recognition technology could compromise privacy, target marginalised groups and normalise intrusive surveillance.

The technology worked on an opt-in basis: when users allowed the use of facial recognition, Facebook scanned a 'faceprint' for that user and used it to find photos and videos of them on the platform. One-third of Facebook’s daily active users, or over 600 million accounts, had opted into the use of facial recognition technology.

Facebook used the technology in features such as 'Photo Review', which would notify the user if they appeared in photos or videos but hadn't been tagged, and identify if someone else was impersonating that user on Facebook. It also helped with accessibility for people with visual impairments, by telling them who was in a photo.

"Regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use" said Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence at Facebook. "Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate". Facebook has not ruled out using facial recognition technology in other products, saying it still sees it as a "powerful tool" for identity verification, for example.

The removal of facial recognition tools by the world's largest social media platform comes as the tech industry faces scrutiny over recent years over the ethics of using the technology. In February, the social media platform TikTok paid out £66m to settle a lawsuit accusing it of misusing artificial intelligence to track and store facial recognition data. Facebook themselves haven’t been out of the limelight long, since as recently as this month a Facebook whistle-blower disclosed tens of thousands of Facebook's internal documents flagging concerns about the company's attitude towards user privacy and safety.

Facebook has invested millions into facial recognition. In 2012, Facebook acquired Israeli start-up Face.com for $100m, which at the time focused on facial recognition for mobile apps. The deal came just months after Facebook acquired Instagram, CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s biggest effort at the time to move the business and incorporate such technologies to mobile platforms.

Facebook's move away from bulk facial recognition may highlight a shift as market leaders water down their artificial intelligence efforts to assuage public concerns.