Facebook Inc. announced Tuesday it is shutting down its facial recognition system, which automatically identifies users in photos and videos, citing growing societal concerns about the use of the technology.
"Regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use," Jerome Pesenti, vice president of artificial intelligence at Facebook, wrote in a blog post. "Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate."
"This change will represent one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology's history," Pesenti wrote. "Its removal will result in the deletion of more than a billion people's individual facial recognition templates."
The removal of face recognition by the world's largest social media platform comes as the tech industry has faced a reckoning over the past few years over the ethics of using the technology.
Critics say facial recognition technology - which is popular among retailers, hospitals and other businesses for security purposes - could compromise privacy, target marginalized groups and normalize intrusive surveillance.
The news also comes as Facebook has been under intense scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers over user safety and a wide range of abuses on its platforms.
The company, which last week renamed itself Meta Platforms Inc., said more than one-third of Facebook's daily active users have opted into the face recognition setting on the social media site, and the change will now delete the "facial recognition templates" of more than 1 billion people.
The removal will roll out globally and is expected to be complete by December, a Facebook spokesperson said.
Facebook added that its automatic alt text tool, which creates image descriptions for visually impaired people, will no longer include the names of people recognized in photos after the removal of face recognition, but will otherwise function normally.
The technology will now be limited to certain services such as helping people gain access to their locked accounts or unlock a personal device, Facebook said in the blog post.
Researchers and privacy activists have spent years raising questions about the technology, citing studies that found it worked unevenly across boundaries of race, gender or age.
Concerns have grown because of increasing awareness of the Chinese government's extensive video surveillance system, especially as it's been employed in a region home to one of China's largely Muslim ethnic minority populations.
Some U.S. cities have moved to ban the use of facial recognition software by police and other municipal departments. In 2019, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to outlaw the technology, which has long alarmed privacy and civil liberties advocates.
Meta's newly wary approach to facial recognition follows decisions by other U.S. tech giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and IBM last year to end or pause their sales of facial recognition software to police, citing concerns about false identifications and amid a broader U.S. reckoning over policing and racial injustice.
President Joe Biden's science and technology office in October launched a fact-finding mission to look at facial recognition and other biometric tools used to identify people or assess their emotional or mental states and character.
European regulators and lawmakers have also taken steps toward blocking law enforcement from scanning facial features in public spaces, as part of broader efforts to regulate the riskiest applications of artificial intelligence.
This report contains material from Reuters and The Associated Press.
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