Facebook ditches its creepy, controversial robot – yes, its facial-recognition AI

Social network is going to sit this one out until clear rules are formulated

Updated Having last week sidelined the tarnished brand Facebook to conduct business under the name Meta, the social ad biz intends to deactivate at least some of its facial-recognition systems in a few weeks.

In a blog post on Tuesday, Jerome Pesenti, VP of artificial intelligence at Facebook, said the social ad platform – still referred to as Facebook – is "shutting down the Face Recognition system on Facebook."

Pesenti describes the shift as part of a company-wide move away from the use of facial recognition in its products. While he continues to see positive uses for the technology – which the company intends to continue to develop under the rubric of its Responsible Innovation framework – he acknowledges that current social concerns about the technology need to be addressed.

"[T]he 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 Pesenti. "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."

Facebook was among the early users of the technology, implementing it back in 2010 to help identify people in photos posted by users of the site.

The technology was immediately controversial and has become more so as it has proliferated. Facebook was sued in 2015 over its use of facial recognition in Illinois under the state's 2008 Biometric Information Privacy Act and recently agreed to settle that lawsuit for $650m.

Other companies that have pushed to deploy the technology in the US, like Clearview AI, have faced lawsuits of their own.

By casting facial recognition aside for the time being, Facebook may be able to avoid embarrassing incidents like having its video recommendation system label black people as primates.

Pesenti said the shutdown, which involves the deletion of more than a billion facial recognition templates of people's face characteristics, will affect some of Facebook's services. Those who have opted into Facebook's image tagging will no longer be automatically identified in photos and videos. And Automatic Alt Text (AAT), which generates image alt tags that describe images for the blind and visually-impaired, will no longer supply names for people recognized in photos.

Advocacy groups have endorsed Facebook's decision to distance itself from the technology.

"This is good news," said Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an email to The Register. "Face recognition invades our privacy, unfairly discriminates against people of color, and chills free speech. Facebook leaving the face recognition business reflects a growing national discomfort with this dangerous technology."

Schwartz said he couldn't speculate about whether or not the decision followed from the litigation in Illinois. "Big companies presumably listen to their consumers and respond to privacy laws," he said. "The momentum is against face recognition technology."

“Facial recognition is one of the most dangerous and politically toxic technologies ever created," said Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director at Fight for the Future, in an email to The Register. "Even Facebook knows that."

"Companies like Delta and Macy’s should ask themselves what they’re thinking by expanding and doubling down on their use of the highly dangerous technology. Lawmakers should ask why they’re allowing government contracts with Clearview instead of banning use of the technology."

Facial recognition, said Seeley George, misidentifies people of color, leading to wrongful arrests, and denies people the opportunity to live life without being constantly surveilled. She argues that governments, law enforcement, and private companies cannot be trusted with such invasive technology.

"[A]s algorithms improve, facial recognition will only be more dangerous," said Seeley George. "This technology will enable authoritarian governments to target and crack down on religious minorities and political dissent; it will automate the funneling of people into prisons without making us safer; it will create new tools for stalking, abuse, and identity theft."

"There is only [one] logical action for lawmakers and companies: it should be banned," she said. ®

Updated to add

We were careful to say Facebook is ditching at least some of its facial-recognition tech. Keyword: Facebook. Meta, and its goofy 3D fantasy metaverse, reportedly hasn't ruled out using the AI technology as well as biometrics in various shapes and forms in future.

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