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Facial Recognition Study: Is the technology worth our privacy?

Facial recognition has seen a distinct rise in the past couple of years, with authorities increasingly adopting the technology at both hardware and software level. With arguably little resistance, surveillance has become widespread across the United States, particularly on the east coast.

Used correctly, it can be integral to our safety and security by aiding in the identification of criminals and finding missing children. It is also one of the largest infringements of privacy in recent years and could act as the foundations for the same dystopian societies outlined in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Giving a voice back to the people of the US, ProPrivacy asked 440 Republicans and 579 Democrats a series of questions on what compromises they are willing to make, their understanding of the technology and where there would draw the line.


How important is the notion of ‘freedom’?

It is unsurprising to learn that freedom is important to US citizens regardless of their political leaning. What is important to note, however, is that everyone has different concepts of what freedom is based on their own ideals and experiences. This is particularly evident when asking each person when they would be willing to compromise on their privacy.

What is facial recognition?

Facial recognition technology is more sophisticated than it’s ever been, as the software now allows the identification and verification of individuals through live video, as well as static images. This has naturally birthed a relationship between facial recognition and closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance systems, with the latter growing significantly as a result.

Would you be happy to have your face registered on a national database to improve homeland security?

In order to successfully identify individuals, facial recognition technology relies on photographs of people’s faces. Usually, this is done by accessing the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and government databases, using driver’s license photos and mugshots of previous offenders.

When presented with the idea of voluntarily giving this information up, however, participants were divided. Democrats were noticeably more disgruntled with the idea than their Republican counterparts, accounting for the small majority shunning the prospect entirely.

Do you think there is a difference between CCTV and facial recognition technology when it comes to our privacy?

70% Democrats and 60% of Republicans surveyed recognize that there is a difference in privacy implications between CCTV cameras and facial recognition. When combined, CCTV acts as a method of collecting the data while facial recognition organizes the data and cross-references it with available databases such as recorded drivers’ license photos.

This is significantly quicker than relying on manual processes but has many concerns surrounding bias. Until the technology becomes more accurate and machine learning is geared towards diversity, there is a much higher margin for error concerning people of color, women, and other minorities. Therefore, the addition of facial recognition technology should be considered a significantly greater invasion of privacy than CCTV on its own.

What are you willing to compromise on?

Balancing privacy and safety is no easy task, with one sometimes coming at the expense of the other. We ask our participants which they hold in higher regard by checking whether they agree with the following statements:

Facial recognition should be welcomed into society as it can have a positive impact and security and safety

While ProPrivacy stands by its concern over facial recognition, the benefits cannot be ignored. It can help find missing people, solve crimes quicker beyond a reasonable doubt, and act as a deterrent.

This is something that Republicans clearly embrace, as 63% believe facial recognition should be embraced on the merits of its safety. 52% of Democrats, on the other hand, remain concerned with the cost of our privacy and potential for abuse.

I am willing to sacrifice a little of my freedom for a feeling of safety

According to our survey, Democrats are a little more inclined to give up some freedom for a sense of safety, while just 57% of Republicans are willing to make the same sacrifices - creating a 6% disparity from the previous question.

It’s possible that these participants have simply set hard limits on what they are willing to sacrifice, but we find it more likely that there is a dissociation between freedom and how facial recognition can infringe upon it.

Once again, this harkens back to the idea that freedom means different things to each and every person.

I’m willing to sacrifice a few of my civil liberties if it means even one life is saved

Introducing mortality into the equation complicates matters, forcing people to think about others instead of their own basic human rights. Despite this curve ball, 57% of both Republicans and Democrats disagree that civil liberties should be up for debate.

As famously uttered on Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), this could be because people consider that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” It’s difficult, if not impossible, to place the value of a life, but one breach in civil liberties creates the threat that many more will soon follow.

I’m willing to sacrifice some of my child or children's civil liberties if it means one life is saved

People feel even stronger about relinquishing the civil liberties of children, with 65% of Republicans and 66% of Democrats disagreeing with this approach. This change of heart is understandable since adults are more protective when it comes to youngsters, but it is still concerning given that facial recognition breaches everyone’s privacy equally – bias withstanding.

I don't have anything to hide so don't need to worry about my privacy

Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

Edward Snowden

This is a statement that resonates more with Democrats than it does with Republicans, although both remain on the fence. For many, the desire for privacy isn’t related to the want to commit a crime. It is the worry about how this data will inevitably be used for marketing or for control by an increasingly intrusive authority – which is especially concerning in a country that has been founded on the very notion of giving power back to the people.

How comfortable would you be with facial recognition?

There are definitely great uses for facial recognition, but it isn’t necessarily welcomed everywhere. We asked our participants whether they would be comfortable with facial recognition in certain scenarios, testing what their limits would be with the technology.

In summer camps to help quickly find photographs of your child/children

In schools to help identify potential threats

Democrats are largely uncomfortable with facial recognition around children, while Republicans are much more accepting when it is used to protect youths in education. Given that the technology helps to identify threat actors quicker and easier than any human can, it is believed that facial recognition can reduce the risk of shootings. Alternatively, it’s scary to think about how such invasive coverage could be misused if in the wrong hands.

In smart home devices such as Amazon Alexa

On social media platforms to help organize photos

Regardless of political preferences, allowing third-party companies to use facial recognition is widely panned. This is hardly surprising with Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica controversy lingering in recent memory, drawing attention to how businesses collect as much data as possible. Although the organization of photos and the possibility of unlocking camera-powered devices is convenient, it simply isn’t worth trading your valuable data for.

At borders to reduce illegal immigration and prevent terror threats

The United States border is already a contentious topic without introducing technology into the mix, but facial recognition has certainly left people divided. Republicans are overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that it has the potential to reduce illegal immigration, while over half of our Democrat participants struggle to see the value.

Of course, it’s important to fight the war on terror, but some feel as though a country built by immigrants should be less heavy-handed when dealing with international neighbors, regardless of their legal status.

Is there a need for legislation?

Do you think that legislation should be introduced on the use of facial recognition technology?

70% of our participants believe that facial recognition should not be allowed to grow without proper regulation in place. ProPrivacy is inclined to agree but who, exactly, will make such laws? Like most governments around the world, US officials are infamous for their lack of understanding when it comes to new technologies, while companies are inherently biased towards their own self-interests. The only way to ensure that there is no room for misuse or abuse without hindering progression is for the two to collaborate when cementing regulation.

Written by: Damien Mason

In his first year with ProPrivacy, Damien found himself quoted in Forbes, Digital Spy, Reader’s Digest and several other publications before stepping up as Content Editor. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Film & Television Production, he is familiar with all areas of writing and often produces scripts for ProPrivacy’s own YouTube channel. Outside of the company, he can be found playing video games, binging television shows and writing about both.


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