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Raji said it’s always good when companies take public steps to signal that technology is dangerous but cautioned that people shouldn’t have to rely on voluntary corporate actions for protection. Whether Facebook’s decision to limit facial recognition use makes a larger difference will depend on policymakers.

“If this prompts a policymaker to take the conversation about facial recognition seriously enough to actually pull some legislation through Congress and really advocate for and lean into it, then this would become a turning point or a critical moment,” she says.

Despite occasionally bipartisan rhetoric about the threat facial recognition poses to civil liberties and a lack of standards in use by law enforcement, Congress has not passed any laws regulating use of the technology or setting standards for how businesses or governments can use facial recognition.

In a statement shared with WIRED, the group Fight for the Future said Facebook knows facial recognition is dangerous and renewed calls to ban use of the technology.

“Even as algorithms improve, facial recognition will only be more dangerous,” the group says. “This technology will enable authoritarian governments to target and crack down on religious minorities and political dissent; it will automate the funneling of people into prisons without making us safer; it will create new tools for stalking, abuse, and identity theft.”

Sneha Revanur, founder of Encode Justice, a group for young people seeking an end to the use of algorithms that automate oppression, said in a statement that the news represents a hard-earned victory for privacy and racial justice advocates and youth organizers. She said it’s one reform out of many needed to address hate speech, misinformation, and surveillance enabled by social media companies.

Luke Stark is an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario and a longtime critic of facial recognition. He’s called facial recognition and computer vision pseudoscience with implications for biometric data privacy, anti-discrimination law, and civil liberties. In 2019, he argued that facial recognition is the plutonium of AI.

Stark said he thinks Facebook’s action amounts to a PR tactic and a deflection meant to grab good headlines, not a core change in philosophy. But he said the move also shows a company that doesn’t want to be associated with toxic technology.

He connected the decision to Facebook’s recent focus on virtual reality and the metaverse. Powering personalized avatars will require collecting other kinds of physiological data and invite new privacy concerns, he said. Stark also questioned the impact of scrapping the facial recognition database because he doesn’t know anybody younger than 45 who posts photos on Facebook.

Facebook characterized its decision as “one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology’s history.” But Stark predicts “the actual impact is going to be quite minor” because Facebook hasn’t completely abandoned facial recognition and others still use it.

“I think it can be a turning point if people who are concerned about these technologies continue to press the conversation,” he says.

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