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Freelance journalist

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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
October 30, 2019


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UK and US citizens back automatic facial recognition by police – but with safeguards

While more and more vendors are now offering facial recognition features in cameras as standard, the public debate about the technology continues.

facial recognitionTwo major surveys on the use of facial recognition on each side of the Atlantic show that the majority of people are happy for it to be deployed by police and law enforcement with safeguards, but are not so comfortable with its use by private operators.

The UK survey – published last month by the Ada Lovelace Institute – shows that a majority of people (55%) want the government to impose restrictions on police use of facial recognition technology, with nearly one third (29%) of the public uncomfortable with its use by police in any circumstances.

Nearly half the public (46%) want the right to opt out of the use of facial recognition, rising to 56% of people from minority ethnic groups, for whom the technology is less accurate.

But when people were asked about the use of facial recognition by companies for commercial benefit, 77% are uncomfortable with the technology being used in shops to track customers and 76% are unhappy with it being used by HR departments in recruitment.

While people fear the normalisation of surveillance, they are prepared to accept facial recognition where there is a clear public benefit – provided safeguards are in place. For example, nearly half (49%) support the use of the technology in day-to-day policing, while a clear majority are opposed to its use in schools (67%) or on public transport (61%).

While awareness of facial recognition in the UK is high at 90%, knowledge about it is lower with only 53% saying they know something about the technology.

The survey was conducted by polling company YouGov and covered a nationally representative sample of 4109 adults across the UK.

Meanwhile in the United States, more than half of the public (56%) trust law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition responsibly, according to a survey carried out by the independent Pew Research Center. A similar share (59%) says it is acceptable for law enforcement to use the technology to assess security threats in public places.

As with the UK, this broad acceptance of the use of facial recognition by police and law enforcement does not extend to private companies. Only 36% of the public trust technology companies to use facial recognition responsibly, with the same number backing its use to track who is entering or leaving apartment buildings. Just 30% support its use to monitor the attendance of employees at a place of work, with the figure dropping to 15% when monitoring how people respond to public advertising displays in real time.

In similar findings to those in the UK survey, younger Americans are less likely than older ones to back the use of facial recognition to assess security threats in public places, and a smaller share of black and Hispanic adults than white people think the use of the technology by law enforcement is acceptable. Some 61% of whites trust law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition tools, but that share falls to 43% among blacks.

Most Americans think facial recognition works effectively, with 73% thinking the technology is at least somewhat effective at accurately identifying individuals, while smaller majorities thinking it’s effective at accurately assessing someone’s gender (63%) or race (61%).

The research was carried out among 4,272 American adults from 3-17 June 2019.

Click here to read how facial recognition can be used lawfully.

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[…] about. More and more vendors are now offering the technology as standard, but there is still much public debate over the usage of facial recognition – particularly in relation to data capture and GDPR. Once a face has been captured and […]