Facebook has announced that it is closing down the use of facial recognition on its platform, after a decade of privacy concerns about its use on the platform.

The under-fire social network announced the decision in a blog post on Tuesday, and said that while the Face Recognition system was still useful, especially for those people who are sight impaired, the lack of rules about its use from regulators, plus societal concerns, had prompted its decision.

As a reminder, Facebook began implementing its facial recognition technology in the US in December 2010. And it subsequently switched it on by default on its platform in other countries, without informing its users first.

Decade of concern

Concerns began to surface in 2011, but it wasn’t until September 2012 when Facebook, after investigation by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner in Ireland, voluntarily removed its face recognition software in Europe.

It did so after the practice was deemed illegal, because it stored biometric data without users’ explicit consent.

But in 2018, Facebook took the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as an opportunity to reintroduce a controversial facial recognition for European users.

It gave users a single check box to tick to accept its use, but also gave users the option of clicking a “don’t allow” button to exclude the feature.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s decision to suspend facial recognition in 2012 for European users, and not US users, triggered a lawsuit in 2015 in Illinois.

The social networking giant was sued when Illinois users accused Facebook of violating that state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act in collecting biometric data.

The lawsuit began because of Facebook’s “Tag Suggestions” feature, which allowed users to recognise their Facebook friends from previously uploaded photos.

The lawsuit was filed in Illinois because its biometric privacy law provides for damages of $1,000 for each negligent violation and $5,000 for each intentional or reckless violation.

In August 2019, Facebook failed in its attempt to quash the class action lawsuit, and then in January 2020 Facebook opted to settle the lawsuit after it reportedly reached a $550 million settlement.

Face Recognition Ends

Now in 2021 Facebook has confirmed it is to finally end its Face Recognition system.

“In the coming weeks, we will shut down the Face Recognition system on Facebook as part of a company-wide move to limit the use of facial recognition in our products,” said the social network.

“As part of this change, people who have opted in to our Face Recognition setting will no longer be automatically recognised in photos and videos, and we will delete the facial recognition template used to identify them,” it added.

It said this move “will represent one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology’s history,” and that “more than a third of Facebook’s daily active users have opted in to our Face Recognition setting and are able to be recognised.”

Facebook said its removal will result in the deletion of more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates.

Facebook pointed out the technology was useful particularly to the blind and visually impaired, who used the Face Recognition system to tell them when they, or one of their friends, is in an image.

“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,” said the network. “We believe facial recognition can help for products like these with privacy, transparency and control in place, so you decide if and how your face is used. We will continue working on these technologies and engaging outside experts.”

But it pointed out that its use had to be weighed against growing concerns about the use of this technology as a whole.

“There are many concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society, and regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use,” said Facebook. “Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”

“This includes services that help people gain access to a locked account, verify their identity in financial products or unlock a personal device,” it said. “These are places where facial recognition is both broadly valuable to people and socially acceptable, when deployed with care.”

Facebook said that going forward, its technology will no longer automatically recognise if people’s faces appear in Memories, photos or videos.

Users can no longer turn on face recognition for suggested tagging or see a suggested tag with their name in photos and videos they may appear in.

And for those users who opted into its Face Recognition setting, Facebook will delete the template used to identify them.

“Every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and we want to find the right balance,” Facebook concluded. “In the case of facial recognition, its long-term role in society needs to be debated in the open, and among those who will be most impacted by it. We will continue engaging in that conversation and working with the civil society groups and regulators who are leading this discussion.”

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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