Prof. signs open letter opposing facial recognition on college campuses

Professor Bernadette Brooten (CLAS/WGS), the director of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project and the emerita Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, was one of 150 academics across the country that signed an open letter to campus administration opposing the use of facial recognition software on college campuses, according to an article by MassLive.

“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,” according to the open letter

The faculty wrote the letter with the intent to support the students at their respective universities, stating that students shouldn’t have to choose between education and their right to safety and privacy. According to the letter, faculty and staff said there is no safe way for the technology to be used, therefore it should be banned.  

The letter states that facial recognition is not an effective means of security on college campuses. It cites an article by the American Civil Liberties Union that demonstrates that video surveillance does not increase security at all. 

Brooten told The Brandeis Hoot in an email that she signed the letter out of concern “for darker skinned and immigrant communities.”

The open letter explains how facial recognition is often inherently biased against people of color, citing a recent study done by Patrick Grother, Mei Ngan and Kayee Hanaoka, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NSIT). The study found that the algorithm used in facial recognition technology has racial and gender bias. Other researchers in the facial recognition technology field have claimed the software is inaccurate; according to the article, the algorithm often misidentifies people of color, older adults and women. 

“The facial recognition software can err, especially with darker skinned people,” added Brooten. “And the data can be used by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to target undocumented students and others.” 

Brooten was not a part of the writing of the letter but had many of the same concerns voiced in the open letter. “Administrations opposed to certain groups of protesting students could use it [facial recognition] to deter them from demonstrating,” Brooten wrote in an email to The Hoot. “And law enforcement, ICE, and even stalkers might obtain information and misuse it.”

The open letter also states that biometric data that is collected through facial recognition can be a common target for hackers and stalkers. “We’ve seen that many schools are ill-equipped to safeguard this data,” the letter added. 

“Teaching people to be aware of their surroundings and to look for signs of potential violence, hateful or discriminatory acts, or other misconduct is a community-based approach that can be more effective” than using facial recognition software, Brooten wrote to The Hoot.

The Ban Facial Recognition website uses a “scoreboard” to monitor universities in the United States and their policies towards the use of facial recognition technology. Brandeis has been a confirmed institution which does not use facial recognition and does not plan to use it in the future, along with other institutions in the area including: Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, Tufts University, Hampshire College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Though other institutions like Northeastern University might be using facial recognition software, it is reported. 

The letter was signed by academics from multiple universities in the area including: Boston University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Massachusetts Boston, according to the letter. 

“I am very proud of Brandeis for vowing not to use facial recognition software,” Brooten told The Hoot. “I signed the petition mainly to support students, faculty, and staff at other universities and colleges in their efforts to persuade their administrations.” 

There are currently no state or federal restrictions on facial recognition software, according to an article by MassLive. Somerville, Brookline, Northampton, Cambridge and Springfield have all passed legislation banning the use of the software in their respective towns. Massachusetts is also “considering a proposed statewide moratorium on the technology and other forms of remote biometric surveillance.” 

A national campaign, with goals to stop the use of facial recognition technology on college campuses, collaborated with the team of faculty and staff to create this letter, according to a MassLive article. Other advocacy organizations were involved in the effort, according to the article, including Students for Sensible Drug Policy—a group responsible for grassroots movements to end the Drug War, according to their website. Fight for the Future, a campaign which defends technology as a force for liberation and not tyranny, according to their website, was also involved in drawing attention to this issue. 

Menu Title