As the University of Miami campus re-filled for another uncertain academic year last month, a group of students, faculty and campus workers issued a grim warning.
On September 4, protesters lay on the ground as dead, some of them holding gravestones, while a Birkenstock-clad person in a dark grim reaper patrolled the scene.
Protesters were targeting what they called unsafe working conditions for staff and faculty amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Students have the option to learn remotely.) But they soon experienced a second scare: Although all the participants were wearing masks, the university had managed to identify them and had them scolded by the Dean of the Students.
The students were concerned that the school would use facial recognition technology. But the school told the Daily Beast it didn’t need it. Instead, using its high powered camera system and internal police force, the university was able to identify masked protesters with their faces and college emails.
In an email to participants in the September 4 demonstration, first obtained by the school’s student publication Miami hurricane, the administrators invited the students to a Zoom meeting to discuss their action. The school’s dean of students told attendees that although they are not subject to disciplinary action, they have broken school rules prohibiting holding a protest on university space without permission.
Graduate student Mars Fernandez said the email, which arrived a few weeks after the protest, was a shock.
“I was scared. I felt really, really nervous, ”she told the Daily Beast. “We thought we had been in a successful protest, that we had raised community concerns more publicly than perhaps our previous letters, petitions and statements throughout the spring, summer and early fall. We were really hoping that maybe we could have more public demonstrations. It hit us two weeks later. So when I got the email two weeks later, my heart sank. I was like, ‘No, we didn’t come out of the woods with that.’ “
Students who received the email told the Miami New-Times that they suspected the school had used facial recognition software on them. Fernandez, who took careful notes throughout the meeting with Dean of Students Ryan Holmes, recalled Holmes saying he was unfamiliar with the specific techniques used to identify protesters, but mentioned with casually that it could be software.
More precisely, Holmes told the students at the meeting that the university police provided him with a list of their names a week or two after the protest. he He also said he believed their names were identified using software that could use surveillance cameras to help students locate lost laptops or, in another example, identify a man. who appeared to be chasing a woman on campus. Holmes said the software was used to track down the man and woman, who turned out to be friends playing tag. The young man in that encounter was scared when the university contacted him about the tag set, Holmes said, according to Fernandez.
The University of Miami says it doesn’t use facial recognition software, period.
“The University of Miami does not use facial recognition technology,” a spokesperson for the university told The Daily Beast.
But University of Miami Police Department chief David Rivero told the Daily Beast that the school doesn’t need facial recognition technology to name students because the University of Miami has scanning cameras and a fleet of law enforcement agencies available to identify students on film.
“We were able to take the high-rise images of the people who were at that protest and we gave them to the detectives and they started using their investigative techniques to identify some of the students that were there,” Rivero said. He said the students’ masks ultimately did not prevent them from being identified.
“How could facial recognition work if they are wearing masks?” he added. “This should tell you that we are using other techniques. Just basic investigative techniques. “
Fernandez also speculated that images were used to identify masked students by following them as they returned to dorms or cars. “It sounds just as scary,” she says.
Although Rivero said the UMPD does not maintain the database of photos of students and faculty that would be needed for a facial recognition program, the school has nonetheless used facial recognition in the past, under- handling the task to a public agency.
Digital rights organization Fight for the Future noted an article in the student publication Distraction magazine earlier this month, in which Rivero described the use of facial recognition technology to identify a thief on campus. Rivero told the Daily Beast that in cases like this, the university uses its cameras to take pictures of a suspect, then sends the photos to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which uses its software. facial recognition tool to find a match in a database of people. with previous arrests.
But the Distraction The article also highlighted other cases in which the university’s high-powered cameras had been turned on students, including a recent case in which a freshman was allegedly caught breaking into rooms. washing machine.
A CV of Rivero on the UM website describes him as overseeing “the new college-wide camera system (CCTV).” The system now includes 1338 cameras, recording 24 hours a day, and offering video analytics that use sophisticated algorithms applied to a video stream to detect predefined situations and settings such as motion detection, facial recognition, detection of ‘object, and much more. “
Rivero told the Daily Beast that the university had tested facial recognition in the past, working with several companies, but ultimately didn’t implement it because “none of that works.” Facial recognition technology has been shown to cause false matches, especially when identifying people of color. Sometimes these false positives can have disastrous results, such as in the case of a Detroit man who was wrongly arrested on the basis of an incorrect match.
Although none of the student protesters were punished for the protest, the realization that the university could identify them even in masks was frightening, Ferndandez said.
“I think it makes a lot of us anxious to be constantly watched,” she said. “It doesn’t seem natural. Who wants to be watched by people they don’t know, scrutinizing our behavior to see if we are following the rules or not? “
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