More than Half of Americans Trust Law Enforcement to Use Facial Recognition Responsibly
Pew Research Center’s study is the latest to conclude Americans are growing more comfortable with having their faces scanned.
Americans continue to warm to the idea of biometric scans and facial recognition technology, at least when it comes to U.S. law enforcement’s use of the tools.
The latest evidence comes in the form of a Pew Research Center study released this week that found 56% of Americans trust U.S. law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition technology responsibly.
Another 59% of Americans found it acceptable for law enforcement to employ facial recognition technology in public spaces if the technology was used to assess potential security threats.
However, the study indicates the public has substantially less trust in the technology to be used responsibly by tech companies (36%) or advertisers (18%). The study also indicates major differences in the opinions of young people and older Americans as well as Democrats and Republicans.
“A substantially smaller share of young adults think it is acceptable for law enforcement to use facial recognition to assess security threats in public spaces relative to older Americans,” said Aaron Smith, Pew Research Center’s director of Data Labs, in a blog post. “Similarly, smaller shares of black and Hispanic adults than whites think the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement is acceptable, and the same is true of Democrats compared with Republicans.”
The Pew study—comprised of data from a nationally representative survey of 4,200 Americans in June—continues an upward trend of Americans’ comfort with face-scanning and biometric technology in the past year.
A September 2018 study by the Brookings Institution found half of Americans favored limitations in the use of biometric technology by law enforcement, with 42% reporting the technology invaded personal privacy rights. A survey released in January 2019 by the Center for Data Innovation showed an uptick in Americans’ confidence in the technology, with 59% supporting the use of facial recognition technology, providing the software works as it should.
The attitude change comes as the federal government’s use of facial recognition tech has increased. Last summer, Washington Dulles International Airport became the first U.S. airport to apprehend an imposter with new biometric cameras. At border points of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has apprehended more than 100 imposters and identified more than 14,000 people who left the country after overstaying visas, a spokesperson told Nextgov in May.
And in July, it was revealed that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents used facial recognition tech on state driver’s license photos.
Yet even amid the public scrutiny of these uses of the technology and others, Pew’s research indicates 13% of Americans have not heard anything about facial recognition.
From Pew Research Center
More Than Half of U.S. Adults Trust Law Enforcement to Use Facial Recognition Responsibly
But the public is less accepting of facial recognition technology when used by advertisers or technology companies
The ability of governments and law enforcement agencies to monitor the public using facial recognition was once the province of dystopian science fiction. But modern technology is increasingly bringing versions of these scenarios to life. A recent investigation found that 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. And countries such as China have made facial recognition technology a cornerstone of their strategies to police the behaviors and activities of their publics.
Despite these high-profile examples from fiction and reality, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that a majority of Americans (56%) trust law enforcement agencies to use these technologies responsibly. A similar share of the public (59%) says it is acceptable for law enforcement to use facial recognition tools to assess security threats in public spaces.
About our machine vision research
The Center has used a process similar to facial recognition known as machine vision to conduct research on gender representations in online search results and news stories on social media (our machine vision model could estimate whether an image showed a man or a woman, but was not able to identify individual people).
This report on facial recognition is part of a broader examination of social and technical issues relating to machine vision and facial recognition technologies. The other two products in this series are:
- A data essay describing how the Center built a machine vision algorithm to identify gender in images collected from the web. This essay highlights the importance of using diverse training data in building these types of algorithms and shows how these systems can fail in ways that are both unpredictable and hard to explain.
- An interactive feature that provides a deeper understanding of the way our machine vision system makes decisions about gender in images. Cover up portions of a face to see whether it causes our deep learning algorithm to change its guess about the gender of the person in the image.
At the same time, the survey finds that this relatively broad acceptance of facial recognition use by law enforcement does not necessarily apply to other entities that might use these technologies. Notably smaller shares of the public say they trust technology companies (36%) or advertisers (18%) to use facial recognition responsibly. And minorities of the public would find it acceptable for these tools to be used for purposes such as tracking who is entering or leaving apartment buildings (36%), monitoring the attendance of employees at a place of business (30%) or seeing how people respond to public advertising displays in real time (15%).
These attitudes also differ across demographic groups. For instance, a substantially smaller share of young adults think it is acceptable for law enforcement to use facial recognition to assess security threats in public spaces relative to older Americans. Similarly, smaller shares of black and Hispanic adults than whites think the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement is acceptable, and the same is true of Democrats compared with Republicans.
These are among the main findings of a nationally representative survey of 4,272 U.S. adults conducted June 3-17, 2019.
Most Americans have heard about facial recognition technology, with one-quarter having heard a lot about itThe American public has a broad awareness of automated facial recognition technologies that can identify someone based on a picture or video that includes their face. Most Americans – 86% in total – have heard at least something about facial recognition technology, with 25% saying they have heard a lot about these systems. Just 13% of the public has not heard anything about facial recognition.
Awareness of these systems is relatively widespread across a range of demographic groups, though there is modest variation in awareness based on factors such as educational attainment. Fully 95% of Americans with a college degree or higher have heard at least something about facial recognition technology, with 28% of college graduates saying they have heard a lot about it. But overall awareness falls to 79% (with 19% saying they have heard a lot) among those with a high school diploma or less. Awareness is also slightly higher among those with higher household incomes compared with those with lower incomes; among men relative to women; and among whites relative to blacks and Hispanics.
Notably, nearly identical shares of younger and older adults have heard of facial recognition technology – although younger adults are slightly more likely than older adults to indicate that they have heard a lot about it. (For details on awareness of facial recognition across demographic groups, see Appendix A.)
Majority of Americans trust law enforcement to use facial recognition responsibly; people are less trusting of advertisers, tech companiesWhen asked about their confidence that different entities will use facial recognition tools responsibly, the public expresses much greater trust in law enforcement agencies than in advertisers or technology companies. A 56% majority of U.S. adults trust law enforcement agencies at least somewhat to use facial recognition technologies responsibly, with 17% indicating that they trust these agencies a great deal to use facial recognition.
By contrast, around one-third of U.S. adults trust technology companies to use facial recognition technology responsibly, and just 18% trust advertisers with these technologies. Indeed, a mere 5% of Americans have a great deal of trust that technology companies will use facial recognition responsibly, and just 2% have high levels of trust in its use by advertisers.
Several groups express relatively low levels of trust in law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition responsibly – most notably black adults, younger people and those who identify as Democrats. Roughly six-in-ten whites trust law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition tools, but that share falls to 43% among blacks (an 18 percentage point difference). Comparable gaps in trust exist between 18- to 29-year-olds and those ages 65 and older, as well as between Democrats (including political independents who lean toward the Democratic Party) and Republicans and Republican leaners. Prior surveys by the Center of broader public attitudes toward law enforcement have found that roughly eight-in-ten Americans have confidence that police officers will act in the best interests of the public, and that warm views toward the police are especially prevalent among whites, older adults and Republicans.
Although white adults express higher levels of trust in the use of facial recognition by law enforcement relative to black adults, whites tend to express greater levels of distrust in other entities. Just 27% of whites say they do not trust law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition – but just over half (55%) of whites do not trust technology companies, and 73% feel this way about advertisers. A larger share of blacks (34%) than whites do not trust law enforcement to use these technologies responsibly. But notably smaller shares of blacks relative to whites express distrust in technology companies (34%) or advertisers (52%).
Americans more accepting of facial recognition use by law enforcement to assess public security threats than of use in other situationsWhen asked a separate set of questions about whether the use of facial recognition technology is acceptable under certain circumstances, the public again expresses more acceptance of these tools when used by law enforcement agencies than in other situations. A 59% majority of U.S. adults think it is acceptable for law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition technology to assess potential security threats in public spaces, while just 15% find this unacceptable. The rest are either unsure if this is acceptable or have not heard of facial recognition technology in the first place.
By comparison, larger shares of Americans find it unacceptable than find it acceptable for companies to use these technologies to automatically track the attendance of their employees (30% acceptable, 41% not acceptable), or for advertisers to use these tools to see how people respond to public advertising displays (15% acceptable, 54% unacceptable). The public is largely split on apartment building landlords using this technology to track who is entering or leaving their buildings: 36% think this is an acceptable use of facial recognition technology, but 34% think it is not.
As was true of Americans’ trust in law enforcement to use facial recognition technology, views of how acceptable it is for law enforcement to use facial recognition in public spaces vary based on age, political affiliation and racial or ethnic background.
These differences are especially stark in the case of age. Fewer than half (42%) of 18- to-29-year-olds think it is acceptable for law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition to assess security threats in public spaces. But that share rises to 55% among those ages 30 to 49, to 65% among those ages 50 to 64, and to 76% among those 65 and older. Indeed, just 6% of older Americans think this is an unacceptable use of facial recognition technology.
Additionally, a larger share of whites (64%) finds the use of facial recognition in public spaces by law enforcement to be acceptable relative to the shares of blacks (47%) or Hispanics (55%) who say the same. And Republicans (including those who lean toward the Republican Party) are somewhat more accepting of facial recognition when used by law enforcement relative to Democrats and Democratic leaners – although a majority of each group finds this acceptable.
Majorities of Americans think facial recognition can effectively identify individual people, as well as classify them by gender and raceDespite some well-publicized examples in which facial recognition technologies have misidentified individual people or struggled to recognize certain types of faces, most Americans consider these tools to be relatively effective. Roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults (73%) think facial recognition technologies are at least somewhat effective at accurately identifying individual people. Smaller majorities think these tools are effective at accurately assessing someone’s gender (63%) or race (61%).
Larger shares of men than women think facial recognition tools are effective in each of these circumstances, and whites are consistently more likely to view them as effective than are blacks or Hispanics. Additionally, those who have heard more about facial recognition tend to have more positive opinions of its effectiveness in each of these areas. Relative to those who have heard only a little about this technology, Americans who have heard a great deal about facial recognition are roughly twice as likely to say these tools would be very effective at accurately identifying individual people (40% vs. 18% among those who have heard only a little), as well as accurately assessing someone’s race (28% vs. 13%) or gender (28% vs. 14%).
The American Trends Panel survey methodology
The American Trends Panel (ATP), created by Pew Research Center, is a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults. Panelists participate via self-administered web surveys. Panelists who do not have internet access at home are provided with a tablet and wireless internet connection. The panel is being managed by Ipsos.
Data in this report are drawn from the panel wave conducted June 3 to June 17, 2019. A total of 4,272 panelists responded out of 5,869 who were sampled, for a response rate of 73%. This does not include six panelists who were removed from the data due to extremely high rates of refusal or straightlining. The cumulative response rate accounting for nonresponse to the recruitment surveys and attrition is 5.1%. The break-off rate among panelists who logged onto the survey and completed at least one item is 1.7%. The margin of sampling error for the full sample of 4,272 respondents is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.
The subsample from the ATP was selected by grouping panelists into five strata so demographic groups that are underrepresented in the panel had a higher probability of selection than overrepresented groups:
- Stratum A consists of panelists who are non-internet users. They were sampled at a rate of 100%.
- Stratum B consists of panelists with a high school education or less. They were sampled at a rate of 98.9%.
- Stratum C consists of panelists that are Hispanic, unregistered to vote, or non-volunteers. They were sampled at a rate of 44.8%.
- Stratum D consists of panelists that are black or 18-34 years old. They were sampled at a rate of 18.2%.
- Stratum E consists of the remaining panelists. They were sampled at a rate of 13.5%.
The ATP was created in 2014, with the first cohort of panelists invited to join the panel at the end of a large, national, landline and cellphone random-digit-dial survey that was conducted in both English and Spanish. Two additional recruitments were conducted using the same method in 2015 and 2017, respectively. Across these three surveys, a total of 19,718 adults were invited to join the ATP, of which 9,942 agreed to participate.
In August 2018, the ATP switched from telephone to address-based recruitment. Invitations were sent to a random, address-based sample (ABS) of households selected from the U.S. Postal Service’s Delivery Sequence File. In each household, the adult with the next birthday was asked to go online to complete a survey, at the end of which they were invited to join the panel. For a random half-sample of invitations, households without internet access were instructed to return a postcard. These households were contacted by telephone and sent a tablet if they agreed to participate. A total of 9,396 were invited to join the panel, and 8,778 agreed to join the panel and completed an initial profile survey. Of the 18,720 individuals who have ever joined the ATP, 13,459 remained active panelists and continued to receive survey invitations at the time this survey was conducted.
The U.S. Postal Service’s Delivery Sequence File has been estimated to cover as much as 98% of the population, although some studies suggest that the coverage could be in the low 90% range.1
WeightingThe ATP data were weighted in a multistep process that begins with a base weight incorporating the respondents’ original survey selection probability and the fact that in 2014 and 2017 some respondents were subsampled for invitation to the panel. The next step in the weighting uses an iterative technique that aligns the sample to population benchmarks on the dimensions listed in the accompanying table.
Sampling errors and test of statistical significance take into account the effect of weighting. Interviews are conducted in both English and Spanish, but the American Trends Panel’s Hispanic sample is predominantly U.S. born and English speaking.
In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.
The following table shows the unweighted sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:
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