While Meta, Facebook's newly rebranded parent company, said it will shut down its facial recognition system on the social media platform by the end of the year, some aren't so sure.
Meta's move was met with praise from some privacy advocates, but for observers skeptical of Meta's big news -- delivered in a Nov. 2 blog post -- the ambiguity about what Meta plans to do with the powerful facial recognition technology it still controls is concerning.
"This is not a complete turning their back on facial recognition," said Merritt Maxim, an analyst at Forrester Research. "It's just one-use case for which Facebook says they are no longer using facial recognition. But it doesn't mean that Facebook has completely washed its hands of using facial recognition for other purposes, either now or in the future."
Meanwhile, as part of the change, people who opted to use Facebook's facial recognition setting will no longer be automatically tagged in photos and videos. The company said it plans to delete more than a billion people's individual facial recognition templates.
The change will also remove Automatic Alt Text (ATT), a technology -- widely viewed as beneficial -- that's used to create image descriptions for those who are blind or visually impaired.
Shutting down facial recognition
The blog post only mentions getting rid of photo and image tagging features and does not appear to be a complete ban.
Meta also said that facial recognition is a strong tool for good -- to verify people's identity and to prevent fraud and impersonation, as long as privacy and transparency controls are in place.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
For Maxim, he said he thinks it's possible that Meta will continue to use the technology on the Facebook platform internally, for its own purposes, as opposed to what users may see.
Problems with facial recognition
Meta's decision to curtail Facebook's facial recognition features was not particularly surprising in light of problems and criticism Facebook has faced in the past with the technology and other issues.
Earlier this year, a federal judge approved a $650 million settlement in a private lawsuit against Facebook for using its photo face-tagging and other biometric data without the permission of users. In 2019, the FTC fined Facebook $5 billion for unclear controls and settings about how and when facial recognition would be used.
With all these nagging problems with the photo tagging feature, many see Facebook's decision as about finally trying to eliminate some of the privacy concerns it has long encountered.
Merritt MaximAnalyst, Forrester Research
And Facebook is not the first tech giant to reduce the use of facial recognition technology. Amazon, Microsoft and IBM stopped selling facial recognition software to police departments.
"A lot of AI technologies and facial recognition probably being the tip of the spear, they just create a lot of risk," said Patrick Hall, principal scientist at BNH.ai, a boutique law firm focusing on the legal and technical risks of AI technology.
The risks involve data privacy and discrimination.
"I think a lot of these companies are doing the math and realizing that the risks outweigh the benefits," Hall said.
Hall said the benefits of seeing friends show up in photos is relatively minimal, so social media purveyors such as Facebook are starting to slow down their use of the technology.
However, the technology itself can be used responsibly if companies that employ it change their culture and pay closer attention to how it is being used, Hall said.
If facial recognition itself is leading to racial or gender discrimination, then leaders of organizations must be attentive enough to turn off features that use the technology.
"I do think there is a responsible lower-risk way to deploy these technologies, but you have to get out of this [Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's famous motto] 'go fast and break things' mindset" Hall said. "When you go fast and break things when you're dealing with people, then you're just harming people."
Regaining the public's trust
Meta and Facebook appear interested in going forward with positive applications of facial recognition.
"I think what's really going on at Facebook is that they're trying to understand where they can play a role in the conversation around ethical use of technology," said R "Ray" Wang, an analyst at Constellation Research.
In Wang's view, Facebook is exploring ways it can help the public and ways it harms the public.
He noted that the ATT technology helped those who are blind or visually impaired.
"Facial recognition is an awesome benefit for these folks," Wang said. "But because [Facebook] uses the technology but don't disclose how they want to use it or publicly say how they're trying to use it ... that's where they get all this controversy."
Using facial recognition in the future
However, the technology itself is likely to return within the next 18 months, Wang said.
"It's going to come back in a different way," he said. "It's just going to be repurposed at another point in time or incorporated in other parts of their platform."
He said that Meta will also need the technology in the metaverse that it's trying to build.