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University of Miami Won't Commit to Ban on Facial Recognition Tech

Students and faculty protested conditions at the University of Miami during a September 4 "die-in."
Students and faculty protested conditions at the University of Miami during a September 4 "die-in."
Photo by Ally Gaddy/The Miami Hurricane

One month after news outlets reported that the University of Miami used video surveillance to track student protesters, the school's president has yet to address students' calls for a ban on facial-recognition technology, a measure supported by more than 20 civil-rights groups.

On October 13, the UM Employee-Student Alliance (UMESA) tweeted that students who participated in a protest against the university's COVID-19 policies in September were called to a meeting with the dean of students and told they had been identified through video surveillance.

The revelation caused an uproar among students who feared the university was using controversial facial-recognition technology to track them and penalize dissent.

University officials have denied using facial-recognition technology. UM insists that its police department used "basic police techniques" to track down the students in this case. During criminal investigations, the university explains, photos of crime suspects are sometimes sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and run through its arrest-photo database for identification.

But the debacle led members of UMESA to call on UM president Julio Frenk for an outright ban on facial-recognition technology so students won't have to worry about its implementation in the future. The student group has the backing of over 20 civil-rights organizations, including Fight for the Future, the Center for Human Rights and Privacy, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"ACLU is extraordinarily concerned about the use of a faulty technology that seems to fail around the most vulnerable student populations with no regard to freedom," says Chad Marlow, senior advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU.

The use of facial-recognition software by law enforcement has faced strong criticism for its frequent failure to produce accurate matches, particularly when it comes to identifying people of color and transgender individuals. The software also has trouble recognizing people wearing facemasks — a particular sticking point in the COVID-19 era.

Mars Fernandez and Esteban Wood, student leaders of UMESA, tell New Times they're concerned about the "slippery slope" of surveillance techniques. They fear that even if UM isn't using facial-recognition tech right now, there's nothing stopping the school from using it down the line.

"Regardless of whether they used facial recognition for each of us, this reveals that the university uses secrecy in its surveillance practices," says Fernandez. "This software can misidentify students, and it's not accurate. We're advocating for a codified ban."

After meeting with members of ACLU and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in October, UMESA drafted a prewritten message for supporters to send to university administrators with three demands: for UM to issue a campus-wide ban on facial recognition, schedule a forum to discuss student concerns, and meet with members of UMESA to address the subject of their original protest — unfair conditions for faculty and contracted workers.

When New Times asked UM about UMESA's demands for a facial-recognition ban, the university did not answer directly, instead doubling down on the message that it does not use the software.

"At the University of Miami, we balance our need to protect the safety of our students with our students' right to privacy. The University does not employ facial recognition technology in its security measures," the university said in an email through a spokesperson. "As part of our efforts to ensure the health and safety of our community, especially during this pandemic, university administrators met with students who failed to follow the appropriate process when organizing an in-person event."

UMESA pointed out that the University of Miami Police Department (UMPD) was listed in a 2016 PowerPoint Presentation by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office as one of the agencies in Florida using the Face Analysis Comparison & Examination System (FACES). The student group also referenced an Orlando Sentinel article from 2019 that named UMPD as a user of the FACES network as evidence that the university might be using facial recognition. On the other hand, a list of active FACES users provided to New Times in response to a public records request does not list UMPD as one of 270 agencies actively using FACES as of last month.

Wood says no one from UM has reached out to UMESA yet, in spite of members' efforts on the group's behalf.

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Fernandez and Wood say they're continuing to push for a ban on facial-recongition technology, and they're still gaining support. The 20-plus organizations backing UMESA sent an open letter to university administrators and the Board of Trustees on October 26.

"Their path forward is obvious. Their own chief of campus police told Forbes that facial recognition doesn't work. They need to ban facial recognition immediately with a clearly stated policy, and meet with students," Lia Holland, an activist with Fight for the Future, wrote in the open letter.

Though the student group hasn't sought any legal action or called for direct intervention from those groups, Marlow says the ACLU is ready to step up if needed.

"Right now, we're in an information-gathering stage with UMESA. We've heard their concerns," Marlow tells New Times. "Hopefully UM will put some thought into dealing with student concerns and be able to solve this in an appropriate way without us getting involved, but we're open to taking a larger role."

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