National Survey Finds Few Americans Want Strict Limits on Facial Recognition Technology

January 7, 2019

WASHINGTON — Despite occasional media frenzies raising alarms about facial recognition technology—such as news that the Secret Service would test a system outside the White House—a new national survey from the Center for Data Innovation finds that just one in four Americans (26 percent) wants government to strictly limit the technology, and that support drops to fewer than one in five (18 percent) if it would come at the cost of public safety.

Similarly, only 20 percent of Americans support limiting use of facial recognition if it would mean airports can’t use the technology to speed up security lines, and just 24 percent want limits if it would keep stores from using the technology to stop shoplifting.

“People are often suspicious of new technologies, but in this case, they seem to have warmed up to facial recognition technology quite quickly,” said the Center’s director, Daniel Castro. “Perhaps most importantly, Americans have made it clear they do not want regulations that limit the use of facial recognition if it comes at the cost of public safety.”

The Center’s findings come from a national online poll of 3,151 U.S. adult Internet users conducted December 13 through December 16, 2018.

The survey found that support for police using facial recognition increases depending on the technology’s accuracy: If the software is right 80 percent of the time, then 39 percent of respondents agreed with letting police use it while 32 percent disagreed. If the software is right 90 percent of the time, then 47 percent of respondents agreed with police using it and 25 percent disagreed. And if the software is right 100 percent of the time, then 59 percent agreed with police using it and 16 percent disagreed.

That finding of support is noteworthy, as the National Institute of Science and Technology recently found that just 0.2 percent of facial recognition database searches failed in 2018, down from 4 percent in 2014 and 5 percent in 2010.

“The survey results suggest that one of the most important ways for police to gain public support for using facial recognition technology in their communities is to use the most accurate tools available,” said Castro. “People are willing to get behind police use of facial recognition technology as long as it is accurate and makes their communities safer.”

Read the survey results.