Nov 2, 2021 - Technology

Facebook’s plan to delete a billion faces

A illustration of facial recognition software.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook plans to shut down its face recognition system in the "coming weeks," Meta announced Tuesday, citing the "many concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society."

Driving the news: The changes will affect more than a third of daily users, according to Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence at Meta, Facebook's newly-named parent company. Facebook "will delete more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates," Pesenti said.

  • Yes, but: The system's deletion will also impact the alt text technology used to describe images to people who are visually impaired.

State of play: Facebook's facial recognition system has been around since December 2010, per the New York Times. The company has one of the largest repositories of digital pictures in the world.

  • The system automatically identified people in users' digital albums and suggested "tags."

What they're saying: "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," Pesenti said in a statement.

  • "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," it added.
  • "But 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."
  • "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."

Between the lines: Facial recognition technology has long been a point of contention in the U.S., particularly around questions about how to regulate and ethically use the technology.

  • More government agencies have started using it, renewing privacy concerns.
  • Retail stores have also started utilizing facial recognition to prevent fraud, track food traffic and offer contactless payment.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional information throughout.

Go deeper