With privacy and government surveillance being increasingly salient issues in the discussion around biometric technologies, industry stakeholders may be overlooking the importance of political partisanship in the discourse, suggests a recent Scientific American op-ed by Samuel Dooley, Angelica Goetzen, and Elissa M. Redmiles, affiliates of the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems.
Citing their own, broad-reaching study based on survey data collected during the summers of 2020 and 2021, the authors argue that while a shrinking number of Americans support warrantless government surveillance, their attitudes aren’t based on a principled view of privacy rights but rather on a partisan fear of ‘the other’.
“Our original research suggests that Americans’ fears about government surveillance change based on who is in power and what we fear that political party may do with our data,” the researchers assert.
To illustrate the point, the authors note that self-identified Republicans were nine percent more likely than Democrats to accept government surveillance aimed at preventing terrorism – under a Republican administration, in 2020. The following summer, under the Democratic Biden presidency, opinions flipped, with Democrats being nine percent more likely to accept that kind of surveillance.
The researchers assert that these findings hold true even when controlling for demographic factors like race, gender, age, and level of education.
“This suggests that Americans are more willing to accept the government collecting data on them when their politics align with the president’s, even though the data being gathered may be put to the same use,” they conclude.
It is essentially just one data point, but it’s a telling one. And it suggests that there is a powerful political dimension to the public’s shifting views on privacy and, by extension, the collection and use of biometric data. That consideration might bear on the issue of how to interpret polling data on specific questions concerning biometric tech.
An extensive study published by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, for example, found that survey respondents had different views on facial recognition based on their political affiliation. But the margins were pretty thin, relatively speaking: There was only a five percent difference between Republicans and Democrats who opposed the use of facial recognition by police (25 and 30 percent, respectively); and the same was true of Republicans (at 48 percent) and Democrats (43 percent) who think that the police should use facial recognition.
For anyone who follows politics closely, the partisan divide is not surprising, nor is its skew. If anything is surprising about the results, it’s how narrow the divide is.
But Pew collected its survey data in November of 2021, during the Biden presidency. Presumably, the fact that a Democrat was in the White House had some effect on how respondents felt about the issue. Let’s imagine that the nine-point attitude flip found by the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems researchers holds true in the domain of police biometrics. Under a Republican administration, the partisan divide on this issue could become pretty stark. Hypothetically, 58 percent of Republicans would favor the use of facial recognition by police, while 39 percent of Democrats would oppose it.
In that scenario, those attitudes could make the discussion around police biometrics even more polarized than it is now. And such a situation really could be on the horizon: the Democrats are widely expected to take a beating in this year’s midterm elections – a Gallup study said they face an “extremely unfavorable election environment” – and that could portend a change in the White House in 2024, though of course the latter election is too far away to warrant confident speculation.
Meanwhile, the Biden Administration has only just started to try to figure out a policy stance on police biometrics, as detailed in our last ID Tech column. The White House recently issued an Executive Order asking the Secretary of Homeland Security, the US Attorney General, and the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to jointly draft a report on how police should use facial recognition technology, and it demanded a separate report on the use of facial recognition from the National Research Council. The former is due in about 18 months, and the latter in six.
The conclusions of those reports and, more importantly, how the Biden administration chooses to present them to the American public could have a significant impact on the public’s attitudes toward the use of biometrics by law enforcement, if the Max Planck researchers’ findings about privacy issues hold true in this area as well.
For a number of vendors operating in the biometrics space, that means it’s going to be worth paying close attention to these developments going forward; and it means that lobbying efforts in the near term could be consequential for the industry. The IBIA is already trying to make its voice heard in the policy discussion, and independent vendors who have the means to do so may want to involve themselves as well in it, as well.
Partisan debate is, it seems, inescapable in 21st-century America. The situation doesn’t require biometrics vendors to pick a side, but it does require them to pay attention, in order to understand how their technologies will be received by the public – or, rather, each half of it.
June 23, 2022 – by Alex Perala
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