Use of Facial Recognition Technology Met with Different Acceptance Levels in China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States

A team of researchers from Freie Universität Berlin and the University of St. Gallen surveyed 6,500 people from four countries

No 032/2020 from Feb 12, 2020

According to a study by researchers at Freie Universität Berlin and the University of St. Gallen, 51 percent of Internet users surveyed feel that when it comes to the use of facial recognition technology (FRT), the benefits outweigh the risks. The study also found that only one in five people have a negative attitude toward use of the technology. The study draws on data from a survey of representative samples of Internet users between the ages of 18 and 65 living in China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Over 6,500 people responded to the online questionnaire. Other findings pointed to a stark discrepancy in acceptance levels between the four different countries. Acceptance is highest in China, while Germany has the highest level of skepticism. State authorities and private companies have begun to use FRT more frequently to identify people. The findings were presented on Wednesday at the Digital Governance Center and the Hertie School of Governance.

Around the world, more and more governments and private companies are implementing artificial intelligence technology that uses optical facial recognition. From unlocking your phone to border control to policing social behavior, the technology can be used for a variety of purposes. Until now there were no studies on what people in different countries think about FRT and its potential risks and benefits. The study conducted by Freie Universität and the University of St. Gallen shows that on average one out of two people surveyed generally accept facial recognition technology, while 22 percent are generally skeptical of it.

However, the numbers vary according to country and region. China has the highest acceptance rate, according to Genia Kostka, a professor of sinology at Freie Universität and co-author of the study. Around 67 percent of respondents in China are open to FRT, she says, while Germany has the most skeptics. Only 38 percent of the people surveyed here welcomed or accepted the use of the technology. In the USA and the United Kingdom, acceptance was in the middle with 47 and 50 percent.

This relationship can also be seen in people’s negative responses to uses of facial recognition. 32 percent of German respondents expressed disapproval, compared to a mere 8 percent of Chinese respondents, with 25 percent in the USA and 23 percent in the UK. According to the study, the private use of FRT is met with more acceptance than government use (52 percent versus 42 percent). However, state service providers are thought to be more trustworthy than private companies that use the technology (60 percent versus 17 percent).

Professor Kostka explains that the high levels of acceptance have to do with the benefits outweighing the risks for many people. People think foremost of things like increased safety through state use of the technology, or convenience and efficiency through private use, says Kostka. The study also showed that attitudes towards facial recognition technology vary depending on multiple factors, with geography being a particularly important one. Kostka adds that it also showed how different attitudes influence the social and political forces in various societies that are shaping digitalization in specific ways.


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