Facebook announced it is pulling the plug on its facial recognition system and will delete the faceprints of over one billion users, as the company tries to rebound from a public relations crisis spawned by whistle-blower revelations that it knew how harmful its products are but did not take meaningful steps to fix them.
“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,” wrote Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence for Facebook’s new parent company, Meta, in a blog post on Tuesday.
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“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,” he added. “Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”
For years, activists and academics have raised concerns that algorithms underpinning facial recognition programmes are racially biased and can be used to target black and brown people, fuel inequality and exacerbate social injustice.
“More than a third of Facebook’s daily active users have opted in to our Face Recognition setting and are able to be recognized, and its removal will result in the deletion of more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates,” said Pesenti, who also noted that regulators “are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing” the use of facial recognition tools.
The social media giant has been caught in a firestorm of image-battering controversy after whistle-blower Frances Haugen leaked documents that showed Facebook’s own researchers knew its products facilitated extremism and exploited vulnerable users like teenage girls, but the company’s executives did nothing to mitigate that harm.
Last week, Facebook renamed itself Meta Platforms and said it would shift its focus to developing a “metaverse” virtual reality platform. On Monday, whistle-blower Haugen blasted that rebrand and urged CEO Mark Zuckerberg to step down.
“I think it is unlikely the company will change if [Mark Zuckerberg] remains the CEO,” Haugen said on the opening night of the Web Summit in Lisbon.
Last year, United States tech giants including Amazon, Microsoft and IBM scrubbed or suspended their sales of facial recognition software to police, citing social justice concerns.