No more facial recognition on Facebook!
Is it a publicity stunt?
Is it an admission that it simply doesn’t work very well?
Or is it a genuine attempt to disavow the sort of technology that gives both privacy advocates and cybersecurity experts the heebie-jeebies?
As Facebook, or more precisely the new holding company Meta, puts it:
We will shut down the Face Recognition system on Facebook as part of a company-wide move to limit the use of facial recognition in our products.
To be fair to Facebook, the system has always been opt-in, meaning that the company’s servers never tried to guess which photos looked like you unless you turned the feature on yourself.
Once enabled, the company used images in which it already knew you appeared (or at least in which it assumed you appeared) in order to train its recognition software to identify you elsewhere online.
It referred to this process of learning to pick users out of crowds as constructing “individual facial recognition templates.”
At the top of the list of official reasons why you might want to opt in was to “[f]ind photos and videos you’re in so we can help you review or share content, suggest tags and provide more relevant content and feature recommendations”.
That was a sort-of two way street, helping people who actively wanted to promote themselves on Facebook to help Facebook itself target them with ads.
Very loosely speaking, Facebook would actively help you keep track of your appearances on Facebook for free, if you allowed Facebook to promote its paying customers to you in return, based on recognizing your face.
Of course, Facebook also offered other reasons to turn this option on, notably that:
- By finding you in other people’s profile pictures, the company could help to warn you about accounts where someone was impersonating you.
- By identifying you by name in more photos, the company would benefit partially-sighted or visually impaired users who might otherwise not be able to recognize you.
But those positives were, it must be said, at the bottom of the list – it really was a trade off of ads-for-visibility, as much as for anything else.
Calling time on faces
Well, it looks as though Meta has finally decided that the benefits are outweighed by the risks, and so it’s calling time, for now, on building, storing and using facial recognition data.
Facebook, ah, Meta, does admit that only one-third of its users ever opted in, though it doesn’t say whether that was down to a sizeable majority of users actively deciding, “No”, or merely due to a significant proportion not realizing they could say “Yes”.
If you have this feature turned on, then it’s going to stop working: all existing facial recognition templates will be gradually deleted from Facebook’s servers; automatic photo-tagging will, as a consequence, no longer be possible; and the Face recognition option in Facebook’s menus will disappear.
What to do?
- If you haven’t opted in to this feature, there’s nothing you can do, because you don’t have a “template” to delete. Sit back and enjoy the sensation that Facebook has come round to your point of view.
- If you have opted in, you can opt out manually right away if you like, now you know that even Facebook thinks it’s not a great idea. But you don’t need to do anything because your stored facial recognition data will be deleted anyway in due course.
- If you have strong opinions on using or not using technology of this sort, don’t be afraid to make your voice heard. Meta admits that it is “civil society groups and regulators who are leading [the] discussion [on facial recognition]”, and that it intends to “continue engaging in that conversation”.
- Be aware before you share. If you willingly identify yourself via images you post on Facebook, it’s not just Meta who “knows” what you look like. In other words, Meta’s own U-turn on facial recognition doesn’t stop other people (or other people’s computers, or other people’s business ventures) using online images where you explicitly identify yourself as tools to track you online automatically.