Most Americans Distrust Companies Using Facial Recognition Technology

September 5, 2019, 2:00 PM UTC

Most Americans favor law enforcement using facial recognition technology, but they are uncomfortable with corporations using it, according to a new survey.

Fifty-six percent of respondents said they trust law enforcement to use facial-recognition technology responsibly, the Pew Research Center found in a study published on Thursday. Meanwhile, 59% said it was acceptable for police to use the technology to assess security threats in public.

But Americans are far more skeptical about companies using facial recognition software. Only 36% said they trust tech companies to use it responsibly while a minuscule 17% said they trust advertisers.

The findings show a big divide among Americans when it comes to who they trust with the cutting-edge technology. That attitude could have a big impact on any future regulation of the facial-scanning technology.

Critics are increasingly raising the alarm about its privacy implications, including its ability to identify law-abiding people in public. They also fear that police could use the technology to improperly profile minorities.

Aaron Smith, director of Data Labs for the Pew Research Center, explained the divide highlighted by survey’s result by saying that Americans are willing to “give up elements of their privacy and civil liberty” if they feel it would better protect them from terrorist attacks or violent crime.

“People’s perceptions [about facial recognition] map closely to their views about law enforcement and their trust in law enforcement more broadly,” Smith said.

Although facial recognition technology has existed for years, it has recently gained wider use. Because of recent innovations in deep learning, a subset of artificial intelligence, it can more accurately identify people.

Over the past couple of years, tech giants like Apple have adopted the technology as a security measure for its customers to unlock their smartphones while Facebook relies on it to automatically identify people in photos. At the same time, Amazon has been trying to sell the technology to law enforcement for fighting crime.

However, the public perception of tech companies is declining along with trust in their ability to safeguard user data. In recent years, a number of tech giants have had significant privacy blunders including Facebook, which ended up paying $5 billion to settle accusations by the Federal Trade Commission about its lax security involving political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Pew’s survey, conducted in June, was based on responses from a representative sample of over 4,000 adult Americans. It was part of a larger Pew Research study analyzing public perception about digital privacy.

Additionally, the survey looked at how accurate Americans think facial recognition technology is. In general, it found that most have a rosy view of the technology’s capabilities.

Seventy-three percent of U.S. adults “think facial recognition technologies are at least somewhat effective at accurately identifying individual people.” Meanwhile, sixty-three percent said they believe the technology can accurately classify a person’s gender while 61% think it can identify race.

In fact, a number of studies have shown that facial recognition technology works better on white males than others including women and African-Americans. In August, the American Civil Liberties Union said facial-recognition technology incorrectly matched 26 California lawmakers with images from an “arrest photo database” during a test, with more than half of the misidentified politicians being “lawmakers of color.”

“One of the things we found is that people who have heard more about the technology have higher views of the efficacies,” Smith said. “I would say people’s awareness of the technology overall is fairly broad but relatively shallow.”

In contrast to the general population, African Americans are more skeptical of law enforcement using facial recognition technology. Only forty-one percent of black respondents said they trust law enforcement with the technology compared to 61% of whites.

Other respondents, like younger adults and those who identified as Democrats, also expressed less trust in law enforcement’s use of facial recognition compared to older Americans and Republicans, the survey found.

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