Facial recognition, which scans and identifies peoples faces as they appear in a cameras 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 peoples 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 isnt allowed to be in a given place.
But critics say the technology doesnt make us safer; instead, 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 its teaming up with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a nonprofit thats focused on drug policy reforms, to try to ensure facial recognition doesnt 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 isnt 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 organizations deputy director, Evan Greer, points to instances where the technology has popped up on the campuses of the University of San Francisco, 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 dont need students consent to use this technology, its not clear how students would even know if their colleges 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 marketingtheir 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.
Its 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 Futures 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, said Greer 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 Recodes 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 wouldnt be good for any young people, said Abhi Dewan, the chapter leader of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at George Washington University. Though Dewan doesnt 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 dont know what the psychological effect of this technology is. If you look at other mass surveillance systems in China, theyre very oppressive, he added. Were not completely sure as to how that will play out, so why are we experimenting on the youth of America?
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