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Facebook is shutting down its controversial facial recognition system

The move will see more than a billion facial templates removed from Facebook's records amid a push for more private applications of the technology

Facebook has announced that it will shut down its facial recognition programme after more than a decade of use.

The company, which recently rebranded to Meta, also said that it will be deleting all users' facial templates. The move will mark the end of website functionality such as automatic user detection in images and Automatic Alt Text - automatically generated descriptions of images used by visually impaired users that currently identifies people in around 4% of all photos on the site.

An exact date for the company's sunsetting of the technology has not been announced, but Facebook said the programme will end "in the coming weeks". 

Acknowledging the situation as a "complex social issue", the social network said it wants to move away from the broad identification approach it previously used with its facial recognition tech and move closer towards focusing on narrower forms of personal identification. Such examples include accessing locked accounts, personal devices, and verifying identity in a financial product.

It added that private, on-device use of the technology may be a more adequate way of deploying it since there will be no communication of biometric data between the device and an external server.

Those who have opted-in for facial recognition on Facebook - more than a third of users - will no longer be automatically identified and their face data will be removed from records. Meta believes this will amount to more than a billion facial templates being deleted.

It's currently unclear if there is any other data associated with the programme that Facebook will be retaining. IT Pro has contacted the company for clarity but it had not responded at the time of publication.

Some corners of the tech industry feel the announcement may be a PR move, perhaps to deflect attention away from the recent stories that have surfaced following former employee Frances Haugen's landmark leak of 10,000 files.

"On one level this is a PR gesture - Facebook has much more invasive information about people than their faces," said Professor Mark Andrejevic, Faculty of Arts, Data Futures Institute at Monash University to IT Pro. "But as a PR move it's still an important one as it highlights the real public concern people have about the development of facial recognition technology."

“The destruction of the faceprints is significant. This is a biometric database that, if breached, would amount to a huge event in terms of the release of biometric data. It's rare that companies whose business is data, destroy such a large and potentially powerful database.

Consulting with outside experts along the way, Facebook will continue to work on facial recognition technology because it believes in its power to be a force for good in areas such as identity verification and prevention of fraud. Though, it said the positives have to be considered against the potential drawbacks.

"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," said Jerome Pesenti, VP of artificial intelligence at Facebook in a blog post. "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.

"This includes services that help people gain access to a locked account, verify their identity in financial products or unlock a personal device," he added. "These are places where facial recognition is both broadly valuable to people and socially acceptable, when deployed with care. While we will continue working on use cases like these, we will ensure people have transparency and control over whether they are automatically recognised."

Some experts believe the decision to delete its facial recognition data is due to regulatory pressure that may be imposed in the future, potentially harming commercial relationships.

"Part of their reasoning to shut down the system could be that they realised the nature and type of consent gained may not meet the existing, or future, standards that regulators may expect for sensitive biometric data," said Peter Galdies, consultant at data protection firm DQM GRC. "This potentially renders all the data as unusable anyway.

"I imagine that commercial users of such data would also be somewhat sceptical of forming a business relationship with Facebook on these matters - considering the previous litigations that Facebook has been involved in with privacy regulators."

It's a sentiment that's echoed by other corners of the industry too. Alan Calder, CEO at GRC International Group told IT Pro: Facebook has only ever been interested in what profits Facebook, so shuttering its facial recognition options for one billion users will not be something that is intended to harm the company, but rather protect it from privacy regulators."

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