Facebook, beset by reports that it ignored evidence that it causes harm in its drive to spur user engagement, pulled the plug on its face recognition features.
What’s new: Facebook disabled face recognition for uploaded photos and videos as well as its retrospective Memories service and promised to delete over 1 billion individual face recognition templates. The company cited “societal concerns” and uncertainty about future government regulation.

Losing Face: Face recognition powered several Facebook features under a single opt-in. Over a third of its 1.8 billion daily users took advantage of them.

  • Users received an alert whenever a photo or video of their face was uploaded, or whenever Memories displayed one.
  • The service automatically tagged uploaded photos and videos with the names of people who appeared in them.
  • The Automatic Alt Text system, which generates spoken image captions for visually impaired users, identified untagged people.

Behind the news: Apart from the current firestorm sparked by documents leaked by a former employee, privacy advocates have repeatedly targeted Facebook’s face recognition features.

  • In 2021, the company agreed to pay $650 million to settle a class-action lawsuit. The plaintiffs held that tagging people in photos without consent violated an Illinois state law.
  • In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission restricted the company’s use of the technology and fined the company $5 billion over its handling of personal information.

Why it matters: Facebook’s move follows similar actions by Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft. The trend suggests dim prospects for face recognition in mass-market consumer settings.

Yes but: This is not necessarily the end of face recognition at Facebook. The company retains its DeepFace technology and will continue to develop it. It views face recognition as an important tool in identity verification and fraud prevention, a spokesperson said.

We’re thinking: In the wake of retreating tech giants, a number of smaller companies have entered the market. The resulting fragmentation makes it harder to keep track of how the technology is being used and potentially abused. Thoughtful regulation should set a clear standard and hold all companies to it.


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