Privacy

What does Facebook's facial recognition shutdown mean for its users?

Joe Bosso 8 Nov 2021

Facebook’s motivation for this decision remains unclear, but it's expected that this will result in the deletion of biometric data of over 1 billion people

Facebook recently announced that they will be shutting down its facial recognition in the coming weeks. You may have seen this feature in action if you have ever uploaded a picture to Facebook and seen how it can suggest people to tag within the photo. This type of technology has caused a litany of privacy concerns, many of which are nicely summarized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit which advocates for digital privacy. It is unclear what Facebook’s motivation is for this decision, but it is expected that this will result in the deletion of biometric data for over 1 billion people. 

Some people have suggested that the decision is related to the larger corporate rebrand to Meta, as it positions itself as a social technology company rather than just a social media platform as well as distance itself from the bad PR resulting from an internal whistleblower releasing what has been dubbed the Facebook Papers

The facial recognition system also got Facebook into some hot water. In fact, Facebook was sued by the state of Illinois for unauthorized collection and processing of biometric data and settled out of court for $550 million early last year. Now that Facebook is deleting this data, what does it mean for its users?

In my opinion, this will not result in any additional privacy for Facebook users. Their data was already collected and processed to feed Facebook’s AI as well as other companies. For example, Clearview AI, a facial recognition startup, used Facebook images amongst others to build a database that has been sold to over 2,200 private businesses and government entities. Since this Facebook data has already been used and shared across the world, deleting it after the fact does no good for its user base. Unfortunately, it's simply too late for that. It's not unlikely that this biometric data was used to power many technologies that are used for mass surveillance, which can easily be abused to violate someone’s privacy.


Further reading: The dangers of government use of biometric data


Actions you can take

First, be aware of what companies you do business with use this technology and limit your exposure to them. Most Apple users are likely aware that the Photos app will group your photos by people and places. It uses facial recognition technology to group photos by an individual's face. Amazon Photos does the same. If you tag people within those photos, it links that biometric data to a person and it is hard to know what these companies might do with the data or where it might end up.

A lot of companies are in the business of tracking people to deliver personalized ads to them and collect their data for a wide range of purposes, so be mindful of what you are putting on the internet and uploading to the cloud. As with many “free” services, in this case cloud storage, there is usually a hidden cost that may not be obvious.