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More than 150 academics sign letter opposing facial recognition surveillance on college and university campuses

A VeriScan facial recognition tablet takes photo of airline passenger at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., Sept. 6, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Flickr)
February 29, 2020

More than 150 academics have signed a letter this week expressing their opposition to the use of facial recognition surveillance on the campuses of higher education institutions.

The letter, published Thursday on Medium, includes signatures from roughly a dozen faculty members at several schools in the commonwealth, including Boston University, Brandeis University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, University of Massachusetts Amherst and University of Massachusetts Boston.

The signatories see the technology as a danger to human rights, personal privacies and students’ safety, they wrote.

“Facial recognition poses a unique threat to safety, civil liberties, and academic freedom on campus,” the letter said. “Facial recognition is invasive, enabling anyone with access to the system to watch students’ movements, try to analyze facial expressions, monitor who they talk to, what they do outside of class, and every move they make.”

The faculty, staff and researchers who penned the letter to campus administrators did so in collaboration with a national campaign that aims to end the use of facial recognition on college campuses. The effort is being spearheaded by the advocacy organizations Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and Fight for the Future, a group founded in Worcester but based currently in Boston.

The organizations are planning to deliver an open letter to higher education administrations across the country next week and stage protests to draw awareness to the issue. The national day of action is scheduled for March 2.

Many advocates and public officials, as well as some in law enforcement, view facial recognition as problematic. Those working in the field of artificial intelligence say facial recognition technology as it exists today is inaccurate. People of color, elderly individuals and women are frequently misidentified. Opponents also argue the software violates people’s civil liberties and is used secretively by governmental agencies.

As state or federal legislation restricting the software does not exist yet, several municipalities across the country have turned to passing their own local facial recognition bans.

San Francisco was the first community in the U.S. to legislate facial recognition in 2019. Somerville followed suit in June. BrooklineNorthamptonCambridge and Springfield have all passed similar ordinances restricting the software.

Massachusetts legislators are also considering a proposed statewide moratorium on the technology and other forms of remote biometric surveillance.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts started a campaign last year to raise public awareness about the issue. The group sent a letter in September to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that expressed concern over the potential use of facial recognition surveillance in schools.

Some who are wary of the software now say it may be a useful tool for law enforcement in the future, though, once it becomes more accurate.

Facial recognition technology is already being used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to Thursday’s letter. The signatories wrote that the software is not an effective way to increase security.

“According to the ACLU, video surveillance does not increase security at all,” the letter said. “And the dangers of facial recognition cannot be avoided, whether it’s used in CCTV cameras explicitly for security or for seemingly innocuous purposes.”

Fight for the Future said it has asked dozens of U.S. colleges and universities if they plan to use facial recognition. The results were mixed.

“Some were happy to provide a statement confirming that their school is not using facial recognition and WON’T USE it in the future,” the group says on its website. “Others MIGHT USE [it], since they either failed to respond to our requests, or they issued a statement implying they might use this tech in the future.

“Even worse, a few schools ARE USING facial recognition programs right now.”

Of the Massachusetts schools it questioned, Boston College, Brandeis, BU, Hampshire College, Harvard and MIT all said they will not use the software.


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