Campaign to Ban Face Recognition at U.S. Colleges Gathers Steam

Campaign to Ban Face Recognition at U.S. Colleges Gathers Steam

An organized campaign against the use of biometric surveillance at universities and colleges in the U.S. is ratcheting up pressure on institutions it believes are currently using—or are likely soon to adopt—face recognition technology.

Fight for the Future, one of the nation’s leading digital rights organizations, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a nonprofit advocacy group, published on Tuesday a scorecard listing the stances of nearly 100 to university campuses on facial recognition use.

The list includes Stanford University and the University of Southern California, which CNET reported this month were both once customers of a California-based facial recognition company.

In a statement to Gizmodo, the group said that 45 schools had provided statements indicating they do not use, nor have any plans to use, face recognition. The list includes Boston College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Rice University, New York University, John Hopkins University, and Kent State University, to name a few.

Another 30 schools, Fight for the Future said, have ignored its inquiries. The group has painted face recognition broadly as both “unreliable” and “biased” and a “threat to basic rights and safety.”

“As this campaign continues, we’re ready to up the pressure on campuses that haven’t shared their facial recognition policies,” said Erica Darragh, a Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) board member.

Some 40 organizations signed a letter on Monday calling on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB)—an independent agency tasked with ensuring the government’s post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts aren’t eroding privacy rights—to advise President Trump and the acting head of Homeland Security to suspend all use of face recognition technology.

“There is also growing concern that facial recognition techniques used by authoritarian governments to control minority populations and limit dissent could spread quickly to democratic societies,” the letter states.

The groups, which include Color of Change, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Demand Progress, also point to a recent face recognition study by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), which found that false positives disproportionately affect people of East and West African and East Asian descent.

NIST also found false positives were elevated when systems tried to match women, children, and the elderly.

Privacy defenders such as the American Civil Liberties Group have been pressing federal lawmakers to curb law enforcement’s use of the technology with a moratorium. This national effort coincides with several others taking place at the municipal level. Several cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Somerville, Massachusetts have banned the technology while others are deliberating over the impact.

A report out of the Georgetown Law Center’s Center on Privacy & Technology last summer raised further doubts as to whether local police departments could use the technology responsibly. It described, for example, how the New York Police Department once used a photograph of actor Woody Harrelson while trying to locate a suspect who, officers believed, closely resembled the celebrity.

“Whether it’s used for Big Brother-style monitoring of student behavior or for more mundane purposes like accessing meal plans or dorms, biometric surveillance technology on campus puts students’ physical safety at risk and violates their most basic rights,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future.

Added Greer: “College administrators need to get on the right side of history by committing to not use facial recognition on campus –– or prepare for battle.”

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