Advocacy Group Warns About Facial-Recognition Tech at Florida Universities

Automatic license-plate readers in Pensacola Beach, Florida.
At any given place in Miami-Dade County, you're likely being surveilled.

Traffic cameras have captured you running red lights. Automatic license-plate readers scan every car driving through Doral, Coral Gables, and Miami Beach. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security uses possibly illegal technology to scan the faces of departing travelers at Miami International Airport, and the Miami-Dade Police Department wants in on a facial-recognition database that studies have warned could yield false positives.

There's no telling where the future of surveillance technology will go, but two advocacy groups want to keep it out of colleges and universities. Last week, Fight for the Future, a group that advocates for protecting people's digital rights; and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a student-led organization trying to end drug prohibition, released a scorecard showing where nearly 100 colleges and universities in the United States stand on the use of facial-recognition technology on campus. Three Florida schools made the list.

The University of Florida and New College of Florida in Sarasota have reportedly pledged not to use facial recognition on campus. But Florida International University, according to the scorecard, might use facial recognition in the future.

Curious about other Miami colleges, New Times reached out to the University of Miami and Miami Dade College. In an emailed statement, Miami Dade College spokesperson Juan Mendieta said the college's security plans are "confidential and exempt records."

"We don't disclose whether or not the college utilizes any particular type of security option, including whether or not we use, don't use, or are considering the use of facial recognition," Mendieta wrote. "The safety and security of our students, employees and visitors is always our top priority."

FIU and UM did not respond to emails from New Times about whether they use or plan to use facial-recognition technology.
Fight for the Future and Students for Sensible Drug Policy have launched "Ban Facial Recognition on Campus," a national campaign to inform students and faculty about surveillance on campus and demand transparency from schools about how they use these technologies. Facial-recognition systems can scan a person's every feature, from the size, shape, and position of their eyes, nose, and jaw to the texture of their skin.

The organizations contacted 88 colleges and universities across the nation and asked if they had plans to use facial recognition on campus. Some schools provided statements saying the technology isn't in use and wouldn't be in the future. The scorecard labels schools as "Might Use" if the school didn't respond to the nonprofits' requests or if they issued statements implying they might use the technology. A few schools — including Stanford; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the University of Southern California — are reportedly using the technology.

The university scorecard invites you to scroll and "see whether or not your campus is experimenting on you."

Police departments, governments, and schools have argued that large-scale surveillance networks are a necessary tool to keep the public safe and curb violence and terrorism. But critics say that the technologies are invasive and that feeling watched could discourage students from exercising their First Amendment rights.

"There's lots of talk about free speech, robust debate, and talking about new ideas on campuses," says Evan Greer, executive director of Fight for the Future. "The idea that a college administration would have technology that would enable them to track the movements and associations of every person on their campus — where they go, who they talk to, how often they leave campus, who they're friends with, where they party... that poses a unique threat to academic freedom."

And federal research has shown facial-recognition technologies are racially biased and frequently misidentify minorities, amplifying concerns that the technologies can lead to false arrests.

"We recognize the criminal justice system is biased and this technology would only exacerbate those existing disparities," says Erica Darragh, a board member with Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

The Washington Post reported last month that some colleges use students' phones to track their locations and classroom attendance. Vox has reported that some companies advertise their technology as a way to track activity in college dorms and cafeterias. The University of Alabama, for example, uses an app that tracks students' movements and rewards them for not leaving football games early.

Beyond the privacy and civil liberty concerns, Greer says there are safety concerns about using often-unsecured technology that requires public or private institutions to create databases of people's sensitive biometric information.

"The government is not good at safeguarding the information they already have," Greer says. "Government databases containing sensitive information get hacked. Big companies get hacked. Even if students trust their administrators won't do anything nefarious with their information, when institutions are collecting information, we have no reason to believe they'll be able to protect it."

The American Civil Liberties Union says surveillance systems are susceptible to systemic abuse. Officials have been caught using police databases to gather information about gay men and blackmail them, to stalk and harass women, and to spy on people.

Greer says Fight for the Future and other organizations are working on proposed legislation to ban police and governments from using facial recognition and strictly limit private and institutional use of the technology.

"I think it's important for us to draw a line in the sand right here," she says.