Facebook recently announced that it would be shutting down its facial recognition system and deleting its store of face-scan data from the billion people who opted in to the system. In a press release from Meta, the newly minted parent company of Facebook, the vice president of artificial intelligence heralded the change as “one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology’s history.”
But Northeastern legal scholars see it differently, and are renewing their calls for government oversight of facial recognition and other advanced technologies.
“This is yet another example of Facebook misdirection,” says Ari E. Waldman, professor of law and computer science at the university. “They’re deleting the face scans but keeping the algorithmic tool that forms the basis of those scans, and are going to keep using the tool in the metaverse.”
Indeed, in an interview shortly after the announcement, Meta spokesperson Jason Grosse told a Vox reporter that the company’s commitment not to use facial recognition doesn’t apply to its metaverse products—a suite of interactive tools that Meta engineers are building to create a virtual, simulated environment layered over the physical one we interact in day to day.
“What this announcement amounts to is that Facebook is throwing out the data they don’t need anymore,” says Waldman, who also serves as faculty director for Northeastern’s Center for Law, Information and Creativity. “This is like when your neighbor is playing music really loud, and they stop not because you’re concerned about the sound, but because they’re done practicing.”
While the announcement isn’t the paradigm-shifting change its Meta authors might have users believe, it does have an upside, says Woodrow Hartzog, professor of law and computer science at Northeastern.
“I appreciate the fact that this announcement gives a little bit more fuel for privacy advocates who argue that facial recognition is not inevitable, it’s not invaluable, and it’s not toothpaste that’s out of the tube—we can change the way we use this technology,” he says.
Far from signaling an end to widespread facial recognition technology, the move by Facebook may create a vacuum in the market that other tech companies will race to fill with their own databases of paired face-name data, Hartzog says. “We may see other companies hit the accelerator now that there’s a market opportunity opened up by Facebook,” he says.
Together, the landscape of facial recognition and other biometric data collection software is one that requires lawmakers to create oversight, not rely upon tech companies to self-regulate, the law scholars say.
“It shows that existing laws continue to drive a need for a more robust and stable regulatory framework for biometrics and other surveillance tools,” Hartzog says.