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Opponents of facial recognition technologies frequently try to pit the debate as one between the government and ordinary Americans. Anti-technology advocates frame the technology this way because they know that if they can scare Americans into believing that this is a dystopian technology, perhaps Americans will support bans. But most Americans have too much common sense to fall for their spin.
This framing might have convinced a few cities to fall in line, but most Americans see through it. Recent polling from Zogby Analytics builds on previous findings that show a large majority of Americans support beneficial uses of facial recognition technology, including law enforcement use.
Zogby’s polling found that three-in-four residents in Massachusetts and Virginia see law enforcement use of facial recognition as appropriate and beneficial. A large majority of residents of both states supported its use for finding missing children, prosecuting sex offenders and traffickers, finding endangered adults, investigating criminal activity, apprehending and prosecuting violent offenders and drug traffickers, and identifying individuals on a terrorist watchlist at public events.
These results line up with a 2019 study by the Center for Data Innovation, which found that only 26 percent of Americans believe the United States government should strictly limit the use of facial recognition technology, and only 18 percent believe the government should strictly limit its use if it comes at the expense of public safety. A 2020 study by NetChoice similarly found that 83 percent of Americans want state and local governments to improve law enforcement use of facial recognition rather than banning it. A majority of individuals polled supported the technology’s use for lead generation, keeping child predators off school grounds, finding missing senior citizens, and locating terrorists during an active terrorist attack.
These and other beneficial uses of facial recognition technology would enable law enforcement to save time and money investigating crimes while obtaining more accurate results than doing the same work through a slow, expensive, inaccurate manual process. Opponents of facial recognition would ban its use completely and cut off police departments and the citizens they protect from these benefits, citing concerns of mass surveillance and widespread bias. But again and again, studies show that most Americans do not want the technology banned.
Rather than support bans on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology, Americans are more likely to support reasonable precautions against inappropriate use of the technology, such as performance standards that would address concerns about inaccuracy and bias and clarification on how Americans’ existing constitutional rights and freedoms will continue to protect them regardless of the tools and technologies law enforcement uses.
Framing facial recognition as government versus citizens, rather than acknowledging the significant overlap between these two groups’ shared interests in public safety and security and how facial recognition can protect citizens rather than surveil them, will continue to lead to overly restrictive bans like those cities across America have already enacted. These cities have cut themselves off from the many benefits of facial recognition technology, putting their citizens in danger. Rather than follow their lead, other cities, states, and the federal government should listen to what the majority of Americans want and opt for balanced rules and regulation over blanket bans.