Shutters down on facial recognition as Facebook deletes data

3 Nov 2021

Image: © Oksana/Stock.adobe.com

Facebook is shutting down its facial recognition system, while Clearview AI has been ordered to delete facial recognition data belonging to Australians.

As facial recognition technology faces increased global regulatory pressure, Meta has announced that it will delete face recognition data from more than 1bn Facebook users that was collected over a decade.

Meta is shutting down the system and said that people who opted in for Facebook’s face recognition feature will no longer be automatically recognised in photos and videos on the platform. This will also affect Facebook’s automatic alt text feature, which created image descriptions for visually impaired people.

Future Human

Jerome Pesenti, VP of artificial intelligence at the company, said that more than a third of Facebook’s daily active users had opted in for the face recognition setting since it was rolled out a decade ago.

“This change will represent one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology’s history,” he said in a blog post. “Making this change required careful consideration, because we have seen a number of places where face recognition can be highly valued by people using platforms.”

The move comes at a time of growing regulatory pressure to limit or ban mass facial recognition technologies. Earlier this year, EU proposals for regulating AI were met with criticism by EU watchdogs for not going far enough when it comes to live facial recognition in public places.

Last month, lawmakers in the European Parliament called for a ban on biometric mass surveillance technologies, such as facial recognition tools, citing the threat these technologies can present to human rights.

Australian investigation

Elsewhere, an investigation led by Australian and UK teams determined that US-based facial recognition company Clearview AI scraped biometric data from the internet without consent.

The Australian Information Commissioner found that Clearview AI was in breach of Australian privacy laws that prohibit collecting Australians’ sensitive information without consent or by unfair means. The company was ordered to stop collecting facial images and biometric templates from individuals in Australia, and to destroy images collected from Australia.

“The covert collection of this kind of sensitive information is unreasonably intrusive and unfair,” said Australia’s privacy commissioner Angelene Falk. “It carries significant risk of harm to individuals, including vulnerable groups such as children and victims of crime, whose images can be searched on Clearview AI’s database.”

Clearview AI’s tech has been used by police departments and other law enforcement agencies. But Falk said that such indiscriminate scraping of people’s facial images, only a fraction of whom would be of interest to law enforcement, “adversely impacts the personal freedoms” of Australian citizens.

Earlier this year, Canada’s federal privacy commissioner also determined that the company violated privacy laws by collecting facial images of Canadians without their consent.

Meta’s future plans

Meta’s decision to delete facial recognition data on Facebook is not the end of the story for the technology’s use by large companies. Pesenti said that Meta will continue to use facial recognition as a “powerful tool” for ID verification and the prevention of fraud and impersonation.

“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,” he said.

In particular, he noted that the technology can be valuable when employed on a user’s personal devices, such as the iPhone’s facial recognition feature to unlock the phone. This method requires no communication of face data with an external server and is stored on the device for privacy.

“Every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and we want to find the right balance,” Pesenti added.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com