Is the Public Ready for Facial Recognition Technology?

This week, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to preliminary ban the use of facial recognition technology by city agencies*. The proposed ordinance says that the “the propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits.” While facial recognition technology is commonly used in smartphones and on social media platforms, there are concerns about its use and most importantly the possibility about inaccuracies on a broad scale.

Overall, public opinion studies by APCO and other organizations have found that the U.S. public is generally predisposed to be favorable towards technology and many believe that it can make us more productive and safer. On the issue of facial recognition technology, a recent public opinion study from December 2018 found that 45% of U.S. internet users disagreed that the government should strictly limit the use of facial recognition technology. However, support for the use of facial recognition technology by police departments weakens in the face of possible inaccuracies –in this same study only 39% support the use of facial recognition technology if the software is correct 80% of the time compared to 59% who support its use if it is correct 100% of the time.

APCO’s own research on perceptions of this technology has found that messages on the accuracy of the technology are key to improving acceptance. Knowing that this technology could be a faster and more effective method when used in law enforcement or by retailers helps to dissuade concerns. It’s not surprising to see then that reports of inaccuracies and bias are starting to raise alarm bells among the public.

More education on how the technology works is most likely not the answer to this major challenge. Our research found that specifics on how the technology works turned people off – potentially taking people’s vague sense of concern and educating them enough to have cause for concern. Talking about laser-based cameras or using the technology to fill in existing shoplifter databases only creates a concern people didn’t know they had.

With Oakland now considering a similar ban on facial recognition technologies for city departments, concerns are high on this issue and possibly growing. Reports of racial and gender bias in the technology undermine the public’s need for confirmation of accuracy which is a necessary hurdle to accept its widespread use. As we saw in our studies, it’s very easy for conversations about new technology to devolve into fears of a dystopian world as imagined in the movie Minority Report. To gain trust and bring the public along, the benefits of the technology must be clearly evident to justify the losses.

*The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is expected to vote to ratify the ordinance next week in a procedural step not expected to change the outcome.