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Why activists want to ban facial recognition on college campuses before it arrives

After pushing against the technology’s use at music festivals, a digital rights group fighting facial recognition is turning its attention to colleges.

A live demonstration uses facial recognition in a dense crowd at a Horizon Robotics exhibit in 2019. David McNew/Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
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Facial recognition, which scans and identifies peoples’ faces as they appear in a camera’s view, is being used more and more often: by law enforcement, at airports, on social media platforms, and even by landlords.

The controversial technology is also being marketed to colleges and universities as a way to beef up dormitory security, track classroom attendance, and intercept expelled students re-entering campus — but a new campaign from the nonprofit advocacy group Fight for the Future wants to fight its rollout. Motivated by concerns that facial recognition is fundamentally flawed and can infringe on people’s right to privacy, the group is encouraging students to fight the deployment of the technology on their campuses.

Proponents of facial recognition tech say its usefulness is obvious: It can help track who is — and isn’t — allowed to be in a given place.

But critics say the technology doesn’t make us safer; they argue it can be used to surveil people and violate their privacy. They point out that facial recognition often relies on databases of sensitive biometric data, which ultimately allows institutions — including government agencies — to immediately know the identity and whereabouts of people caught in their video surveillance feeds. And the technology also tends to be less accurate when applied to people of color and womenfindings that were confirmed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology last year — as well as trans and non-binary people.

Motivated by those concerns, Fight for the Future successfully pushed at least 40 major music festivals, mostly in the US, to agree not to use the technology last year. Now, that group says it’s teaming up with Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), a nonprofit that’s focused on drug policy reforms, to try to ensure facial recognition doesn’t come to college campuses. Students are being urged to introduce resolutions in their student governments that would ban the technology on campus. The effort is expected to begin with student organizers at DePaul University in Chicago and George Washington University in Washington, DC.

“Right now, we have an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and refuse to cooperate or allow this to happen under wraps. We know that there are really aggressive marketing campaigns that are promoting and advertising this technology as a way to prevent violence,” said Erica Darragh, a board member at SSDP. “In order to prevent this technology from being mainstreamed, we need to be ahead of the game.”

The extent to which universities are already using facial recognition isn’t clear, but Fight for the Future says it plans to contact about 40 institutions and will prepare a public scorecard based on their responses. As examples, the organization’s deputy director, Evan Greer, points to instances where the technology has popped up on the campuses of the University of San Francisco (Update: USF says it discontinued facial recognition in 2016, but it has not formally committed to never use the tech), Stanford, and the University of Southern California (the latter two examples involve facial recognition-enabled kiosks for ordering food). Meanwhile, recordings of students in public spaces at both the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and Duke University have been used to improve facial recognition systems. That raises a fundamental challenge for students worried about their privacy: If schools don’t need students’ consent to use this technology, it’s not clear how students would even know if their college’s security staff was using facial recognition.

K-12 schools in the US have already begun using facial recognition, as Recode and other outlets have documented. And several of the same facial recognition providers marketing to those schools are now also marketing their facial recognition tools to colleges and universities. The video analytics company BriefCam has floated using facial recognition to help track resident assistants when students are moving into university dormitories.

It’s worth noting that in the US, school administrators are usually under no obligation to follow the directives of student government decisions. That means Fight for the Future’s goal to ban the tech at colleges might not be easy to achieve. “[A] school administration refusing to listen to its students is cause for an escalation in protest,” Greer said in an email.

The Department of Education told Recode that it has no specific guidance regarding the use of facial recognition in schools, but did not respond to Recode’s request about whether it has issued any guidance about the use of facial recognition by higher education institutions.

“We know that these algorithms that are currently being used by these facial recognition systems exhibit systematic racial bias. If that sort of algorithm and technology is used on campus, it would likely target people of color or non-white males, and that just wouldn’t be good for any young people,” said Abhi Dewan, the chapter leader of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at George Washington University. Though Dewan doesn’t know whether his university is using the technology, his chapter is now gathering interest from peers and will propose a student government resolution.

Dewan points to China, where facial recognition is reportedly being used to surveil and profile Muslims, among a slew of other applications. “We don’t know what the psychological effect of this technology is. If you look at other mass surveillance systems in China, they’re very oppressive,” he added. “We’re not completely sure as to how that will play out, so why are we experimenting on the youth of America?”

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