Pew Surveys Americans’ Trust in Use of Facial Recognition

Although numerous U.S. municipalities have decried facial recognition technologies as “coercive and oppressive,” 56 percent of ordinary U.S. citizens trust law enforcement to use the technologies responsibly. That’s one of the findings of the Pew Research Center, which also learned that 73 percent of those polled believe facial recognition can accurately identify people. The level of trust in law enforcement is surprising given recent incidents in which people have been incorrectly identified, even as terrorists.

Wired reports that Pew director of data labs Aaron Smith noted that, “Americans are generally willing to trade off digital privacy and civil liberties when those issues are framed in the context of general public safety or preventing things like terrorist attacks.”

But that level of trust varied by race and age. Whereas about 60 percent of white Americans trusted law enforcement with facial recognition, only 43 percent of black Americans did; 67 percent of those over 65 trusted law enforcement as opposed to 49 percent of those ages 18 to 29. Likewise, “registered Republicans responded more positively than registered Democrats.”

Trust in law enforcement to use facial recognition properly did not extend to other uses, with “only about a third of respondents trust[ing] technology companies with facial recognition and only 18 percent trust[ing] advertisers.” Smith said he found those disparities surprising because “the negative consequences of police incorrectly labeling someone as a possible suspect ‘are potentially much more profound than, say, an advertiser misidentifying you as someone else’.”

ACLU of Northern California lawyer Matt Cagle, who pushed for a ban on facial recognition in San Francisco, pointed out that, “the survey should have included more context about how the technology would be used.” “Once people know how invasive this technology is, once people know the flaws in many of these products, they reject it more than they initially did when they first heard about it,” he said.

Almost 75 percent of Americans also believed that the facial recognition is “at least somewhat effective” at identifying individuals and “just over 60 percent of Americans think the tools can effectively assess someone’s gender or race.” In fact, facial recognition systems often struggle to identify gender and race, with a 20 percent error rate in correctly identifying dark-skinned women.

The Pew Research Center survey also reported that 86 percent of Americans have heard about automated facial recognition technology, with 25 percent saying they have heard a lot about the topic.

Even though “U.S. law enforcement agencies are using state Department of Motor Vehicles records to identify individual Americans without their consent, including those with no criminal record,” 59 percent of those surveyed said, “it is acceptable for law enforcement to use facial recognition tools to assess security threats in public spaces.” The nationally representative survey was conducted June 3-17, 2019 with 4,272 U.S. adults.