About a half of U.S. Adults say extensive police use of facial recognition is good for society

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Facial recognition technology is deemed beneficial to society by around half of American adults. It is a technology-based method of recognizing a human face. A facial recognition system maps facial features from an image or video using biometrics. To identify a match, it compares the information to a database of known faces. While facial recognition can aid in the verification of a person’s identification, it also presents privacy concerns.

1. How facial recognition works

You might be a genius at recognizing people’s faces. You probably have no trouble recognizing a family member, friend, or acquaintance. You’re aware of their face features, such as their eyes, nose, and mouth, and how they interact.

That’s how a facial recognition system operates, but on a much larger, computational scale. Recognition technology sees data where you see a face. That information can be saved and retrieved. According to a Georgetown University research, half of all American adults have their photos recorded in one or more facial-recognition databases that law enforcement authorities can check.

What is the mechanism behind facial recognition?

Although technologies differ, the following are the basic steps:

Step 1: A photo or video is used to obtain an image of your face. Your face may appear alone or among others. You could be staring straight ahead or nearly in profile in your photo.

Step 2: The geometry of your face is scanned by facial recognition software. The distance between your eyes and the distance from your forehead to your chin are important considerations. The software recognizes facial landmarks (one system recognizes 68 of them) that are important in distinguishing  your face. Your facial signature is the end product.

Step 3: A database of known faces is matched to your facial signature, which is a mathematical formula. Consider the following: At least 117 million people in the United States have images of their faces stored in one or more police databases. The FBI has access to 412 million facial pictures for searches, according to a May 2018 report.

Step 4: A decision is reached. Your faceprint might match one in a database of facial recognition images.

2. What people think about facial recognition 

Face recognition technology extends back to the 1960s, when it relied on manually coding each face in a database. Massive databases, automation, complicated analytical tools, and machine learning have greatly expanded this technology’s reach.

Facial recognition can unlock a phone, diagnose ailments, and find lost pets. One of the most well-known uses of face recognition technology is in police enforcement, where it may help locate missing individuals, solve crimes, and monitor big crowds.

It’s unclear how many law enforcement agencies utilize facial recognition. To date, 42 federal departments that employ law enforcement agents have deployed facial recognition technology in some manner.

The ability of law enforcement to identify faces has generated both criticism and excitement. Others are concerned about how police use of the technology can influence privacy and how incorrect it can be in identifying Black and Hispanic adults. It indicates that majorities of the American public believe ubiquitous facial recognition would assist discover missing persons and solve crimes, but majorities also think police would use it to track everyone’s location and surveil Black and Hispanic populations more than others.

46% of U.S. adults say extensive police use of facial recognition technology would be good for society, while 27% disagree. 27% are unsure whether police should use facial recognition technology.

More consider extensive facial recognition in policing as a good rather than a terrible idea, but most feel it won’t improve crime rates.

Police use of facial recognition software has garnered media interest and public attention.          

8-in-10 Americans have heard or read about police using facial recognition, with 21% hearing a lot. 50-plus adults are more inclined than those under 50 to agree that police facial recognition technology should be widely used (52% vs. 40%). 

While a majority of Americans support broad police use of facial recognition technology, they doubt it would reduce crime. 57% believe that if police employ facial recognition technology widely, crime will remain stable, while 8% believe crime will rise. One-third of Americans think facial recognition would reduce crime.  

Most agree that facial recognition technology would help police discover missing people and solve crimes, but it would also reduce privacy.

Americans perceive benefits and concerns in police using facial recognition technology. Concerning potential benefits, around three-quarters or more believe police would find more missing persons (78%) and solve crimes more swiftly and efficiently (74%).

Half of Americans say police would be better able to control crowds if they used facial recognition technology, while the other half disagree. 69% believed police could follow everyone’s location at all times, and 66% said they would monitor Black and Hispanic communities more often. Face recognition could reduce erroneous arrests, but Americans remain divided. In the US, 53% of adults believe police would make more false arrests if they used facial recognition technology more widely, while 44% disagree.

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