Skip to main content

Three reasons Facebook/Meta is shutting down its face recognition system

Meta, Facebook’s new parent company, announced on Tuesday that Facebook would be eliminating its face-recognition system in the coming weeks. More than a third of Facebook’s regular users take advantage of face-recognition features, so this change will impact a number of people.

If users are currently “opted in” to the face-recognition setting, the templates used to identify each user will be deleted. There will be no more automatic facial recognition in photos or videos, either. Another area this will impact is Automatic Alt Text, or AAT, which is used to describe images to visually impaired or blind individuals. Once the face-recognition system is gone, so is the ability to specifically identify each person in a photo using facial recognition.

Given there are benefits that come from face recognition, why is Meta getting rid of it? In the announcement, Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence at Meta, cites “growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules.”

There are three major areas of concern that we discuss below.

Digitally illustrated facial recognition software graphic.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Privacy issues

Facebook has saved the “faceprints” of hundreds of millions of users, and not everyone is going to be so happy about that. Not too long ago, Facebook settled a class-action lawsuit that was filed in 2015 related to privacy concerns over its face-recognition and tag suggestions feature. The company paid out more than half of a billion dollars as a result. It also stopped the confusing “tag suggestions” feature and renamed it “face recognition” for clarity’s sake, as well as added a clear opt-in component for the renamed technology. But even with these privacy changes, the facial recognition system appears to be more trouble than it’s worth — especially right now, when Meta is taking up prominent space in the headlines for its questionable practices.

Accuracy and fairness concerns

If you’ve watched any recent documentary about police investigations, you’re probably aware that police have increasingly relied on social media as an investigative tool, including and especially Facebook’s face recognition. Many activists and advocates worry about the impact this has on equality, fairness, and overall justice.

Sure, face recognition can be used to solve crimes. But it can also be used to falsely accuse, identify peaceful protesters, and as a tool for accidental or purposeful discrimination (as it notoriously has issues with inaccurately recognizing BIPOC — Black Indigenous or people of color — individuals). San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition by local agencies in 2019, becoming the first major city in the U.S. to do so, as has the state of Maine. The European Parliament has also been making noise to that effect, and we’re increasingly seeing a groundswell against the technology both domestically and internationally.

Regulatory issues

Facebook has also faced regulatory issues surrounding this technology. In 2018, in conjunction with other consumer groups, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding Facebook’s facial recognition technology. And, as we all know, Facebook is no stranger to the FTC.

In the blog post, Pesenti says: “Looking ahead, we still see facial recognition technology as a powerful tool, for example, for people needing to verify their identity or to prevent 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.”

Zuckerberg Meta

He goes on to explain: “Every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and we want to find the right balance. In the case of facial recognition, its long-term role in society needs to be debated in the open, and among those who will be most impacted by it. We will continue engaging in that conversation and working with the civil society groups and regulators who are leading this discussion.”

What are we losing or gaining?

The big and most obvious change is that people’s faces will no longer be recognized and automatically tagged in photos, videos, and Memories, though manual tagging will still be available and encouraged. You also won’t see suggested tags anymore. Perhaps the most notable loss is for vision-impaired users who will no longer get names of people in photos through Automatic Alt Text, though the technology will continue to function for text despite omitting names. None of these are huge losses even taken together, and the face recognition template for those who opted in will be deleted, while those who never opted in won’t see any change.

It remains to be seen if, when, or how face recognition will return to Facebook. But for the time being, many users will feel more secure with the technology gone, while others will lose out on some key features and benefits they enjoy.

Editors' Recommendations

Erika Rawes
Smart Home Evergreen Coordinator
Erika became a professional writer in 2010, and her work is published all over the web on sites ranging from USA Today to…
Twitter is facing its own outages as Facebook users flock to other sites
A Twitter logo graphic.

When Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram all went down, the groundswell of people rushing to other platforms to continue their social posting and messaging -- likely to poke fun at Facebook, frankly -- was intense. So much so, it seems, that Twitter is also experiencing problems.

Everyone's favorite doomsday watchlist Downdetector shows many reports of issues with Twitter, and staff members here at Digital Trends are seeing intermittent problems loading tweets -- both on the timeline and from individual links. So far the issue doesn't seem universal, and content usually loads after a handful of page refreshes, so we can hope this is a little blip and not the start of a larger problem.

Read more
Facebook ordered to pay $650 million in facial recognition lawsuit
The Facebook home page on a screen.

A federal judge has ordered Facebook to pay $650 million -- $100 million more than originally agreed -- to settle a 2015 facial recognition lawsuit, according to a Wednesday court filing.

The federal judge assigned to the case said the original payment amount of $550 million did not properly punish the social network for its wrongdoings, Fortune reported.

Read more
Facebook forced to pay $550 million settlement over facial recognition lawsuit
Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on "An Examination of Facebook and Its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors" in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC on October 23, 2019.

Facebook is going to have to pay quite a few people money as part of the settlement of a facial-recognition lawsuit. The catch is you have to live in Illinois.

Illinois has some of the strictest biometric privacy laws, and a 2015 lawsuit alleges that the social network violated these laws through the use of facial-recognition software in its photo tag feature without people’s consent. Illinois’ 2008 law requires companies to obtain permission before using people’s biometric data and be transparent with how the data is used and kept.

Read more