Facebook will shut down its facial recognition systems and delete its scans of more than a billion people’s faces, saying it is irresponsible to embrace the technology without clear rules on how it should be used.

The social network said it would turn off the recognition systems behind features such as automatic photo tagging in a “company-wide move to limit the use of facial recognition in our products”.

Facial recognition has come under attack from campaigners who say that the widespread use of the technology would be a step towards ending privacy and risks being abused. 

The increasing accuracy of artificially intelligent recognition algorithms and high-definition smartphones and security cameras have created fears that the ground is being prepared for a surveillance state.

Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp and rebranded as “Meta” last week, has been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for allegedly improper use of the technology in the past.

Jerome Pesenti, the company’s head of AI, said: “There are many concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society, and regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use. Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”

Facebook has used facial recognition for more than a decade, first as a way for users uploading photos to automatically identify the people in them. It has expanded the technology’s use since, such as detecting duplicate or fraudulent accounts or automatically generating captions for blind users.

Mr Pesenti said the decision amounted to “one of the largest shifts in facial recognition usage in the technology’s history”.

Facebook has only applied facial recognition to users who have opted in since 2019, and has allowed people to switch off the feature since 2017. The feature was partly switched off in Europe and the UK for several years due to privacy laws.

How facial recognition technology works

Last year, Facebook agreed to pay $650m (£477m) to 1.6m users in Illinois in a settlement over the US state’s strict biometric laws.

The company did not say it was ending work on facial recognition. It said it would continue to develop the technology and that it could be used in future, for example to verify their identity.

The company is under growing pressure to verify the ages of users under 18 from child safety campaigners.

Facial recognition systems developed by big tech companies have raised concerns because of fears that its development and adoption could expand its use in other cases such as by law enforcement. Several US cities have banned the technology’s use by police, although there is no such restriction in the UK.

“Every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and we want to find the right balance,” Mr Pesenti said. “In the case of facial recognition, its long-term role in society needs to be debated in the open, and among those who will be most impacted by it.”

Separately, Netflix has begun offering smartphone games to its members in its first major foray outside video streaming. All subscribers with Android phones would be able to download five mobile games based on titles such as Stranger Things later this week.