Facial recognition, a controversial technology that can identify individuals by scanning and analyzing their features in real time, is coming to college campuses across the US.
Some colleges see the technology as a way to increase safety in dorms and keep expelled students, former employees, registered sex offenders, and other unauthorized people from setting foot on campus.
But the digital rights group Fight for the Future says the risks outweigh the benefits — and they’ve unveiled a new “scorecard” to grade which schools are weighing those risks appropriately.
“If we don’t speak out, soon every campus could be equipped with invasive technology that monitors everything we do, including who students hang out with and what they do outside of class,” the group’s website says. “It’s time to stop facial recognition on campus before we have no liberties left!”
The concern about mission creep in this context makes sense. Although the conversation about bringing facial recognition to campuses started out being about safety, some companies are already hyping the tech as a way to track classroom attendance and resident assistants.
What’s more, if students feel they’re being surveilled, that could lead to a chilling effect on freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. It’s not hard to imagine some students becoming too nervous to show up at a protest, say, or a mosque, especially given the way law enforcement has already used facial recognition tech to identify and arrest protesters.
Then there’s the well-documented fact that facial recognition disproportionately misidentifies people of color and women as well as transgender and nonbinary people. That could lead to these groups being unjustly held for questioning or locked out of campus.
Given all these concerns, Fight for the Future has teamed up with the nonprofit Students for Sensible Drug Policy to create a scorecard with information on facial recognition use at nearly 100 top colleges around the country. They reached out to these schools and asked whether administrators were willing to swear off facial recognition; 45 schools gave statements clarifying that they are not using and have no plans to use it, while more than 30 did not respond or refused to comment. A few others are known to use it or implied they may do so in the future.
You can scroll through their scorecard, republished here from their website, to learn whether a specific school is using facial recognition right now, might use it (since they either failed to respond to requests for information or issued a statement suggesting future use is possible), or won’t use it at all (meaning they provided a statement promising not to use it now or in the future). If your school is not on the list, you can try asking administrators directly.
Prominent schools that have stated they have no intention of using facial recognition include Boston College, Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, MIT, NYU, University of Pennsylvania, and John Hopkins University, among others.
As Rebecca Heilweil wrote for Recode, Stanford and the University of Southern California have allowed facial recognition-enabled kiosks for ordering food. The University of San Francisco has also used the tech; the school now says it discontinued use in 2016, though it has not formally committed to swear off all future use. And recordings of students at both the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and Duke University have been used to improve facial recognition systems.
“American University, George Washington University, and Duke University issued statements to us where they explicitly left the door open to future use of facial recognition, or refused to comment when asked,” said Evan Greer, Fight for the Future’s deputy director, in an email.
Colleges like these seem to be following in the footsteps of some K-12 schools, which have embraced facial recognition to try to stop shootings, though there is no guarantee that strategy will be successful. Critics fear the biometric data used in facial recognition systems might one day be shared with police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, making some students nervous to show up at school.
Fight for the Future, like a host of other activists, academics, and even cities advocating for a ban on facial recognition, contends the risks to privacy and civil liberties are too great. Last year, the group pushed more than 40 large music festivals to swear off use of facial recognition, and descended on Congress to scan lawmakers’ faces in the hope of goading them into regulating the technology.
Next, students at several colleges are planning to escalate Fight for the Future’s campaign by introducing student government resolutions that would ban the use of facial recognition on campus.
While the technology has already been embraced by many — from police departments to airports to landlords — a growing movement has coalesced over the past year to battle it. College campuses are the next frontier.
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