Facebook does an about-face on facial recognition

As if to symbolise its rebrand, Facebook is shutting down its facial recognition system and deleting over a billion individuals’ facial templates.

The system is what allows Facebook to recognise the presence of a face in a photo and suggest a user to tag it to. Knowing this move was imminent, a more appropriate new name for the company may have been ‘Book’, but what do we know? Facebook is positioning the move as ‘part of a company-wide move to limit the use of facial recognition in our products’, but maybe it just doesn’t find the aging technology useful anymore and is trying to make a virtue of necessity.

“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,” wrote Jerome Pesenti, Facebook VP of Artificial Intelligence. “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 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. 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. Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”

Specifically, facial recognition is a great tool for state mass surveillance, especially beloved of the Chinese Communist Party, which apparently views it as a core technology for its social credit system. Campaigning organisations such as the EFF have celebrated this move and, even if you struggle to believe the move was due primarily to moral considerations, Facebook must be acutely aware of the PR risk of having any of its technology used to help human rights abuses.

“Every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and we want to find the right balance,” concluded Pesenti. “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.” Worthy sentiments that we hope Facebook and the rest of Big Tech follow through on.

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