42% of Americans approve of facial recognition in airports (New Survey)

By Joe Robison, Consultant and Data Researcher

Unsurprisingly, citizens are concerned about facial recognition and are divided over the outlook. While the benefits of speed and added security are clear,

The good news for the security industry is that public sentiment is evolving in favor of acceptance of facial recognition technology in airports. Compounded with improving technology, and a plan to roll out to most airports in the U.S., we’re quickly entering a new area of biometric technology.

The travel search engine Reservations.com conducted a new survey and results showed mixed, but confidently positive results in favor of facial recognition technology.

The company surveyed 1,001 American adult internet users. The survey asked the question:

“Agree or disagree? I’m ok with the government using facial recognition technology at airports to improve security and boarding speed.”

Roughly  43% of respondents said they approve of the use of the technology. On the opposite end, 32.5% said they do not approve of the use of the technology, even if it improves security lines and improves boarding speed. Around 25% said they neither agree or disagree.

This online survey polled 1,001 adult internet users in the United States from May 21 to 24, 2019 via the Google Surveys platform. Responses were weighted using gender, age, and region to match the demographics of the national internet population as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

The final results were as follows:

  • Strongly agree: 22.12%
  • Somewhat agree: 20.49%
  • Neither agree nor disagree: 24.83%
  • Somewhat disagree: 8.11%
  • Strongly disagree: 24.45%

Digging a bit deeper into the demographics, we find some interesting revelations. There seems to be generational influences on perspectives that show younger groups less approving and older groups more approving of the technology.

The younger age cohorts 18-24 and 25-34 were more likely to strongly disagree, representing 21% and 25% of those who strongly agreed. This may line up with younger groups understandings of technology, yet less trust in the government.

Older cohorts such as the 55-64 and 65+ groups were the opposite, and made up 24% and 22% of the strongly agree responses, over indexing for their overall representation.

Cohorts in the 35-44 and 45-54 ranges tended to fall somewhere in the middle.

These numbers represent an evolution over time compared to previously run studies.

The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC, ran an October 2018 survey broadly polling on opinions of the technology in many use cases. They found just 31% favorable to the technology in airports, a full 12 percentage points behind the Reservations.com survey. They also found 44% with an unfavorable view, as opposed to 32.5% in this survey.

A December 2018 survey from the Center for Data Innovation found more similar results, perhaps showing how quickly sentiment has been evolving over the last year. They found 54% were opposed to the government limiting the technology, even if it improves airport security lines.

All three surveys were statistically significant and polled audience representing the American demographics, and have been found accurate in independent studies.

From this series of surveys we can see some similar outlooks, but a general shift in favor of the technology. Perhaps as more travelers experience the technology on their own travels, they begin to see the benefits.

Cybersecurity & Biometrics Grab Headlines

There’s no debate that privacy and security breaches grab headlines worldwide.

The first arrest with the aid of facial recognition technology was made in August 2018 at Dulles International Airport. According to FCW, “a traveler allegedly posing as a French citizen got the dubious honor of becoming the first imposter”.

On the facial recognition in airports front, a recent CBP database breach raised some concerns. There was a data breach of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, limited to a single entry point, where 100,000 records were impacted in a cyberattack. The agency revealed that none of the data was found on the dark web since the June 10, 2019 incident.

And of course, numerous data breaches from companies worldwide are constantly making headlines, with millions affected.

What does the future of facial recognition technology hold? Three major factors will influence its use in the coming years: public sentiment, technology accuracy, and government legislation. Our interest in running this study was to understand how potential customers of ours might perceive evolving technology in airports and how that would affect their general willingness to travel or not. We’re very interested in monitoring this space and watching the shift in technology in the coming years.

Joe Robison is a consultant and data researcher for Reservations.com, who ran this facial recognition technology study.