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You Can Now Tell Facebook to Delete Its Internal Record of Your Face

An updated feature allows Facebook users to opt out of facial recognition on the social network

A man with a smartphone stands in front of a monitor with the Facebook logo.
A man with a smartphone stands in front of a monitor with the Facebook logo.
Photo: Carsten Rehder/picture alliance via Getty

Facebook users can now tell the company not to run facial recognition on their pictures.

The company announced Tuesday that it has updated and rebranded its setting for opting out of certain face recognition features that have raised privacy concerns. If you disable face recognition, Facebook won’t automatically suggest tags in images, nor will it automatically suggest tags of your friends. Opting out will also stop Facebook from searching for you in other images on the site using its Photo Review feature — which is designed to notify you when someone uploads a picture of you that you aren’t tagged in, perhaps so that you can flag impersonation or other problems.

The update will also have a significant impact on the underlying technology that allows Facebook to recognize you in the first place, the company told OneZero. Facebook processes images to extract what your face looks like into a hidden string of numbers called a template, according to the company’s website. Fundamentally, facial recognition is just comparing how statistically similar your string of numbers is to other strings of numbers extracted from other images, using criteria like the distance and orientation of facial features learned by an algorithm.

When you opt out of facial recognition on Facebook, the company will delete your template, meaning it will have no original reference point for your face and therefore cannot find your face at all. It’s an assurance that Facebook isn’t actually retaining data that it could use again someday to recognize your face. Of course, Facebook could compute that template again if you opt back in. And your friends can still manually tag you in an image, though doing so won’t lead Facebook to compute a new template for your face.

“When people turn off their face recognition setting, we can no longer create a face template for them for any purpose.”

Opting out also prohibits you from being included in Facebook’s facial recognition research, according to a Facebook spokesperson.

“When people turn off their face recognition setting, we can no longer create a face template for them for any purpose, including A.I. research,” the spokesperson told OneZero.

This opt-out means that Facebook promises no approximation of your face will be used by Facebook to further its own research. That probably won’t hinder the company’s potential to make better facial recognition technology — more than 2.4 billion people use Facebook every month, and most likely won’t opt out — but it will give users slightly more control over how their data is used.

The issue of consent around using facial images for A.I. research has concerned privacy advocates. When IBM scraped facial images people had posted to Flickr under the Creative Commons license, individuals scooped up in the database were alarmed that their identity was being used for A.I. research without their knowledge or approval.

Of course, Facebook already has access to one of the largest facial recognition databases on the planet. A 2014 research paper outlining how its facial recognition works said its dataset contained 4 million facial images from more than 4,000 identities, and the mantra of most A.I. researchers in the five years since has been that more data means a better system.

But it looks like Facebook users finally have a way to remove their faces from being tinkered with by Facebook A.I. researchers: just opt out.

Update: An earlier version of this story said Facebook’s face recognition feature is entirely new. It is an update to an existing setting.

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.

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