US universities reject campus facial recognition systems

Companies retreat for now, but see the technology’s spread as inevitable

January 28, 2020
Source: Getty

Facial recognition systems are hitting a wall of opposition on US university campuses, with the colleges that have tried the technology backing away and many others vowing not to allow it.

Advocacy groups fighting the technology planned this week to highlight that about a dozen institutions had already committed to opposing systems that use cameras and software to identify people for security and payment purposes.

That follows moves by Stanford University and the University of San Francisco to end their brief uses of facial recognition systems, and the acknowledgement by the University of Southern California that its students were largely rejecting the technology in their dormitories.

The “vast majority” of USC students were opting for fingerprint technology to enter their residence halls, said a university spokeswoman.

Such seemingly solid resistance, however, does not comfort opponents of facial recognition systems, who fear that the tide eventually will turn.

The head of one company offering facial recognition software said that he was not seeking customers in higher education because it was not worth the trouble.

“College campuses tend to be an area where a lot of the inflammatory misinformation about facial recognition just makes it challenging to participate,” said Peter Trepp, president of FaceFirst.

Until recently, FaceFirst had had on its website a page promising that its technology could help to prevent mass shootings on campus and could keep out unauthorised parents and expelled students.

The page disappeared from the site after Mr Trepp was asked about it. He said that it had been uploaded by a marketing firm without his knowledge. But Mr Trepp expressed confidence that colleges would become a significant marketplace once facial recognition systems had gained wider acceptance elsewhere. “It’s certainly coming,” he promised.

Concern that the march of the technology might indeed be inevitable has galvanised two advocacy groups, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which opposes drug enforcement laws, and Fight for the Future, which focuses on digital technologies. The groups have been compiling the statements from the universities that are promising to fight facial recognition systems.

“It’s essential that we draw a line in the sand now, before it’s too late,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future.

Institutions listed by Fight for the Future as having committed to shun facial recognition technologies include Boston College, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of California campuses at Davis and Santa Barbara. Others opposing the technology include Columbia, Michigan State, Oregon State, Rice, Tulane and Florida universities.

Stanford’s use of the technology involved food vendors that last year offered computerised kiosks with facial recognition technology as an option for customers to place their orders. The University of San Francisco, a private Jesuit institution, trialled it in 2016 for its security systems but found that it “as a whole did not meet our needs”, said Jason Rossi, the institution’s director of campus card and security systems.

Mr Trepp said facial recognition technology was no more invasive than common systems such as navigation services and social media platforms, which already track people by their looks and their location.

But Liz O’Sullivan, technology director for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said facial recognition tools were far worse than the likes of Facebook and Waze because “you can’t leave your face at home”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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