Digital rights group, students team up against facial recognition tech on college campuses

Digital rights group, students team up against facial recognition tech on college campuses
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Digital rights organization Fight for the Future and college group Students for Sensible Drug Policy on Tuesday co-launched a campaign urging higher education institutions to ban the use of facial recognition technology on campuses. 

The push comes amid growing use of — and backlash to — facial recognition software, which scans faces for the purposes of identifying individuals.

There are few known cases of the controversial technology being used at colleges and universities, but the two groups are warning that without outright bans it may become more common.

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“Facial recognition surveillance spreading to college campuses would put students, faculty, and community members at risk. This type of invasive technology poses a profound threat to our basic liberties, civil rights, and academic freedom,” Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement.

One place where the technology has been used is the University of San Francisco, where the administration in 2018 installed it in dorms to monitor who goes in and out of student living spaces.

Although USF is the only institution which publicly used the technology on campus until discontinuing its use in 2016, Greer says other schools may be quietly using it or considering doing so.

“Part of the problem here — which is true for facial recognition and surveillance technology generally — is a lack of transparency,” she told The Hill in an interview. 

“My guess is that there's actually significantly more places where this is being used or where they've considered using it and we just don't know about it. Because there's right now no laws in place that would, for example, require university security to disclose to students or to even necessarily other parts of the administration that they've purchased such a technology.”

Some elementary, middle and high schools have also entertained using the software to identify flagged individuals, like sex offenders, or weapons entering school grounds.

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Lockport City School District in New York planned last year to be the first public school district in the nation to roll out a facial recognition pilot program, but was asked to delay the initiative by state regulators.

Facial recognition technology has received increasing scrutiny as its use has grown.

Civil rights groups have panned the technology as unwarranted surveillance, while multiple studies have found that it tends to misidentify women and people of color at comparatively higher rates than men and white people.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal agency within the Department of Commerce, released an expansive study last month finding that the majority of facial recognition systems have “demographic differentials” that can worsen their accuracy based on a person’s age, gender or race.

“Students should not have to trade their right to privacy for an education, and no one should be forced to unwittingly participate in a surveillance program which will likely include problematic elements of law enforcement,” Erica Darragh, board member at Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said in a statement, noting similar studies. “This automation of racial and political profiling threatens everyone, especially students, faculty, and campus guests of color.”

Beyond those concerns, the two groups say facial recognition could hamper students’ education.

“It's hard to imagine something that's more detrimental to freedom of expression and academic freedom than students and faculty being constantly monitored, using invasive surveillance that can track them everywhere to monitor what they do … That has a profoundly chilling effect on freedom on campus,” Greer told The Hill.

The groups are pressing universities and colleges to clarify what their current policies on facial recognition are, if any, and to take a strong stance on not using facial recognition technology on students going forward.

Students are already organizing to press administrators at some schools, including Georgetown and George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the groups are hopeful that the campaign will garner support from a diverse swath of student groups following its launch.

“This is an issue that I think will really activate a broad range of student groups. It’s clearly not a partisan issue,” Greer told The Hill, pointing to civil rights and racial justice groups as potential allies.

The debate over facial recognition has been raging for years, but the federal government has largely remained a bystander.

While several cities and municipalities have restricted its use by government officials and police, there is currently no federal law dictating when, how, where or why facial recognition technology can be used.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is scheduled to hold its third hearing on facial recognition technology this Wednesday. 

Several bills have been introduced on the technology, touching on its use by police and public housing administrators, but that legislation has remained stuck in committees.

Updated at 4:11pm