Majority of U.S. adults support police facial biometrics use but opponents call for bans

Majority of U.S. adults support police facial biometrics use but opponents call for bans

A majority of U.S. adults trust law enforcement agencies to use biometric facial recognition responsibly, but significantly fewer people are comfortable with the technology’s use by tech companies or advertisers, according to survey results released by Pew Research Center.

The survey finds 56 percent of Americans trust law enforcement use of facial recognition, and 59 percent are accepting of its use to assess threats in public spaces. Only 36 percent say they trust technology companies to be responsible with facial biometrics, however, and half that many (18 percent) trust advertisers to do so. Public support is also limited for facial recognition deployments in apartment buildings (36 percent), employee attendance monitoring (30 percent), and real-time public advertising display response assessment (15 percent). Trust for law enforcement is not absolute, however, as only 17 percent say they trust agencies ‘a great deal’ to be responsible with facial recognition.

Pew found significant demographic differences, including lower support for law enforcement use of public facial recognition among younger adults, black and Hispanic adults, and Democrats compared with Republicans.

The degree of awareness also varies substantially, with 86 percent saying they have heard something about the technology, but only a quarter saying that have heard a lot about it. Asked if they believe facial recognition systems are effective at accurately identifying individual people, 53 percent said it is somewhat effective, while 21 percent say it is very effective. The number of people who believe it effective or very much so for assessing gender are lower (47 and 16 percent respectively), and for race are slightly lower still (46 and 15 percent).

Unsurprisingly, white men have the greatest confidence in the technology, but more striking is the difference between how many of those who have heard a great deal about facial recognition say it is very effective (40 percent) compared to those who have not (18 percent). Numbers for confidence in gender and race assessment are similarly split.

Groups join call for ban

Fight for the Future has announced that its campaign to force a federal ban on law enforcement use of facial recognition is now supported by more than 30 organizations, representing 15 million combined members. The campaign groups plan a coordinated effort to bombard lawmakers with emails and phone calls to encourage what Fight for the Future characterizes as “growing bipartisan momentum” for legislation.

The groups Deputy Director Evan Greer calls the technology “one of the most authoritarian and invasive forms of surveillance ever created,” and compares it to an epidemic. She also says it should be treated “like biological or nuclear weapons.”

Other groups, notably the ACLU, have called for moratoriums and vigorous public debate on law enforcement use of facial biometrics, with bans on specific uses.

Portland to consider broad ban

A ban on facial recognition use by law enforcement, retailers, and employers which could be the most restrictive in America has been proposed by Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, according to GeekWire.

City council is expected to consider the proposal, which would block theft prevention blacklists in stores, and employee time and attendance systems using facial recognition, later this month. A public city council work session will be held September 17, following an invitation-only Surveillance Technologies Community Forum hosted by Portland’s Smart City PDX program and the city Office of Equity and Human Rights. Smart City PDX says that it does not believe facial recognition is used by any Portland agency, including police.

“The city is interested in regulating the private use of facial recognition technology because of the racial and gender bias and accuracy problems associated with the technology,” Hardesty told GeekWire. “No one should be unjustly harassed by this technology, nor should anyone have to worry about their face being scanned, stored, and sold by companies. I look forward to working with my colleagues on what really is a privacy and civil rights matter.”

There is at least one commercial deployment of facial recognition known in the city, with a convenience store using a blacklist. Advocacy group PDX Privacy supports the ban, but also wants the public use of other biometric modalities addressed.

Portland passed new privacy legislation in June, which resulted in the creation of a city privacy and data management committee.

Cambridge, Massachusetts took a step last month towards becoming the fourth city in the U.S. to implement a ban on facial recognition by public agencies.

Moscow to identify protesters

In contrast to Portland, city officials in Moscow have approved a 260 million-ruble (US$4 million) contract to implement facial recognition capabilities in public surveillance cameras to monitor protests and other mass gatherings, according to Russian daily Vedomosti via The Moscow Times.

The order was placed with AFK Sistema subsidiary Sitronics, which will reportedly install cameras along protest routes to live stream demonstrations to local security officials. An anonymous source with a Russian image recognition provider told Vedomosti that the Moscow surveillance system is “chaotic.”

Moscow also has plans to grow its network of surveillance cameras, and how much of it is equipped with facial recognition capabilities.

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