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Facial Recognition Systems are Hitting a Wall of Opposition on College Campuses

Facial recognition “creates a ‘template’ of the target’s facial image and compares the template to photographs of preexisting images of a face(s) (known).” The technology is used by a wide range of groups, including law enforcement, airlines, and retail stores. Proponents of facial recognition emphasize its advantages, such as improving security and preventing fraud. Conversely, advocates and privacy organizations express concerns about this technology’s efficiency and its susceptibility to a data breach.


Call for Ban on Facial Recognition on Campuses

Tech and security companies market facial recognition technology as a form of security and convenience. However, facial recognition on college campuses has not caught on because activists have been rejecting it. On March 2, Fight for the Future, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), and Students for Sensible Drug Policy—all nonprofit advocacy organizations—organized a nationwide campaign called “Stop Facial Recognition on Campus” to draw awareness to the dangers of facial recognition. Student groups planned to deliver an open letter on March 2 to campus administrations around the country, while staging creative protests to fight against facial recognition use on campus.

Stop Facial Recognition on Campus” aims to rally students, faculty, and other stakeholders to protest the erosion of privacy and other rights infringed by facial recognition technology. The advocacy organizations in this campaign created a scorecard with information on facial recognition used at nearly one hundred top colleges around the country. The advocacy organizations asked those colleges and universities if they plan to use facial recognition and then marked the answers by “WON’T USE,” “MIGHT USE,” and “ARE USING.” Currently, forty-five schools gave statements clarifying that they are not using and have no plans to use facial recognition on campus, while more than thirty are indicated by the scorecard as “might use” or “will use.” According to the scorecard, USC is currently using facial recognition on campus, despite the fact that its students have been largely rejecting facial recognition technology in favor of fingerprint technology in their dormitories.

Erica Darragh, a board member for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, stated that facial recognition technology could violate students’ privacy and exacerbate bias toward and discrimination against minorities. Activists also argue that facial recognition technology poses a profound threat to basic liberties, civil rights, and academic freedom. Moreover, campaign organizers are concerned with the safety and potential abuse of the data collected. “The data collected is vulnerable to hackers, and in the wrong hands could be used to target and harm students,” concluded by Evan Greer, Deputy Director of Fight for the Future.


What’s Next?

Amidst a growing nationwide resistance to facial recognition on college campuses, school administrators have had different responses. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) was the first college to openly abandon using facial recognition software for security surveillance. However, Michigan’s Oakland Community College (OCC) is blocking students’ organizing efforts to prevent the technology from being adopted. OCC’s administrators have also blocked attempts by the student government to pass non-binding resolutions that would ban the use of facial recognition on campus. OCC says it would adopt and establish appropriate guidelines for facial recognition use if OCC were to acquire such software.

After it was updated on March 12th, the Stop Facial Recognition on Campus scorecard shows that there are twelve colleges are using facial technology on campus and twenty-eight colleges might use facial technology on campus in the future. While it is still uncertain whether those colleges will abandon their use due to students’ rejection, a Senate bill has been introduced to ban federal use of facial recognition. In a statement, Senator Cory Booker expressed his concerns about the facial technology such as bias against women and people of color, consumer privacy, and safety. This may indicate a policy trend regarding the future use of facial recognition technology.

Ruiqiao Wen

Ruiqiao Wen, GLTR Staff Member; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2020; Shanghai Jiao Tong University, B.A. 2014. ©2020, Ruiqiao Wen.