In May, San Francisco banned city agencies like the police and sheriff’s departments from using facial recognition technologies over concerns they would be “coercive and oppressive.” The cities of Oakland and Somerville, Massachusetts followed suit this summer. Congress, too, is considering action.
Despite the concerns, a new poll finds that a majority of Americans—56 percent—trust law enforcement to use facial recognition responsibly. The poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center, also found that 73 percent of respondents believe the tools can accurately identify people—a view at odds with some studies of the technology’s accuracy.
The findings are surprising given recent controversies involving facial recognition. In May, Georgetown University published a report showing the New York Police Department manipulated its facial recognition system by replacing an image of a suspect that was too blurry with an image of the actor Woody Harrelson. In April, a student at Brown University was incorrectly identified as one of the Sri Lankan Easter bombers. Aaron Smith, director of data labs at Pew, says the findings are consistent with historical trends showing Americans generally trust police. “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,” he says.
Support for law enforcement use of facial recognition technology varied greatly by race and age. About 60 percent of whites said they trust law enforcement with the technology, but only 43 percent of black respondents did. Similarly, 67 percent of Americans over 65 trust law enforcement with the technology, as opposed to 49 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29. Registered Republicans responded more positively than registered Democrats.
However, the poll found Americans are less trustful of other uses of facial recognition technologies. Only about a third of respondents trust technology companies with facial recognition and only 18 percent trust advertisers. Smith says the survey didn’t probe for the cause of those disparities, but he finds them surprising. He points out that 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.” The results are another sign of the backlash against big technology companies, which includes multiple government investigations.
Matt Cagle, a lawyer at the ACLU of Northern California which advocated for the San Francisco ban on facial recognition, says the survey should have included more context about how the technology would be used. When the ACLU conducted its own poll in March of California voters’ opinions on facial recognition, it asked more pointed questions, such as whether the government “should be able to monitor and track who you are and where you go using your biometric information.” In that survey, 82 percent of respondents—across age, region, and political affiliation—disagreed. “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,” Cagle says.