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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

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Nov 3, 2021 - Technology

The synthetic data that will help build AI and the metaverse

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Synthetic data — the generation of artificial images to train AI and computer vision — will be key to building out a future metaverse.

Why it matters: AI has long been trained on images — including human faces — captured from the real world, but doing so can create serious privacy concerns.

Nov 2, 2021 - Podcasts

What Facebook means when it says “metaverse”

A slew of revelations about Facebook’s internal decision-making had many thinking the tech giant could face additional scrutiny and regulations. Instead, it appears in the wake of those stories, Facebook will plow ahead with its plans to play a bigger and more integral role in the lives of millions who use its services and platforms. 

Axios Re:Cap host Margaret Talev is joined by Axios technology managing editor Scott Rosenberg to discuss what Facebook’s rebrand tells us about its plans to expand. Plus, Margaret lays out what Axios will be watching for from tonight’s election results.

Storms pummel flood-hit Pacific Northwest as border river overflows

An image of the water-logged Sumas Prairie area taken last Friday. Photo: B.C. Ministry of Transportation/Twitter.

The latest ferocious storm system to hit the Pacific Northwest triggered fresh evacuation orders and at least one mudslide in flood-ravaged British Columbia, Canada, late Sunday.

Threat level: Flood sirens sounded in Washington state as the Nooksack River overflowed. Henry Braun, mayor of Abbotsford, B.C., told reporters the water flow was headed toward the Canadian border city later Sunday. "There's nothing to stop it," he said.