Why Universities Choose or Don't Choose to Use Data Tracking and Facial Recognition

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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facial recognition technology Higher education institutions across the United States are constantly on the hunt for new ways to improve campus safety and security. Many technologies have developed over the last few years, with a few being questioned because of privacy concerns. In an era where mass shootings are occurring at a higher rate, campus safety officials are looking into anything that may prevent an active assailant entering campus grounds. Social media monitoring, data tracking, and facial recognition are a few technologies that have stood out to have both great reviews but also raise great concerns. For this reason, campus safety managers have a tough choice to make when it comes enhancing safety plans.

The implementation of social media monitoring is a decision many higher education institutions are debating today. One professor has questioned the ability to remain transparent about data monitoring practices while outsourcing the technology according to NBC. Some students have also questioned a school’s surveillance practice, and are unsure how effective a social media monitoring system would be without student participation in public social media accounts. 

Data-tracking raises additional concerns about privacy and liability on a university campus. Safety officials could also find potential leads overwhelm campus police departments, and raise issues with Clery Act compliance. Privacy advocates worry that surveillance tools are not appropriate for an educational setting, and that these surveillance practices may unfairly target students who are already disciplined at higher-rates, including students of color and students with disabilities, as per the Guardian.

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Research on how well data tracking and facial recognition work to prevent school shootings or other incidents of violence on campus is limited. Many student and faculty advocates worry the prevalence of such technology may divert funds away from practices proven to improve school safety, such as an increase in mental health resources or physical security. Given the risks many campus officials face today, data monitoring may seem like a proactive solution, but it’s important to consider privacy and bias concerns before considering social media surveillance a best practice. 

A Tough Choice: Facial Recognition And Data Tracking 

Fear of mass shootings and other violent incidents on campus have pushed officials to consider another tool - facial recognition software. Administrators across the United States are implementing a facial-recognition technology to prevent major incidents such as mass shootings, but also to enforce school rules and monitor student behavior. In recent years, facial-recognition technology has received significant criticism, with the implicit racial-bias of facial recognition systems at the forefront of the national debate, according to WIRED. Furthermore, many students reported to the publication that the technology actually made them feel more unsafe, the camera system serving as a constant reminder that a mass shooting could happen on campus. 

Facial recognition, data monitoring, and other surveillance tactics to promote campus safety have sparked debates. Yet, recent proposals to make these technologies more central to school safety practices, has raised some pushback from privacy experts. In October, a Senate bill proposed requiring public schools to monitor social media, in the United States, using surveillance technology to scan students’ online behavior for warning signs of violence and self-harm. The new legislation would update the Children’s Internet Protection Act to mandate that public schools adopt technology which would “detect the online activity of minors who are at risk of committing self-harm or extreme violence against others.” 

Related Blog: What Type of Safety Training Should Campus Faculty Receive?

Proponents of the legislation argue the measure would help prevent mass shootings, while critics argue social-media monitoring technology is largely ineffective, violates privacy, and may push students to further conceal online behavior from adults. Many privacy critics remain unhappy with the lack of regulation on social media monitoring and facial recognition about how data would be saved, and might impact student’s long term, and the case foreshadowed further debate over the use of data-tracking technology in higher education settings. 

Fear of mass shooting incidents, which are on the rise across the United States, increased the prevalence of school surveillance technologies on college campuses, but given the drawbacks, it’s unclear if facial recognition or social media monitoring are best practices.In addition to privacy concerns, studies indicate facial-recognition technology replicates racial and gender bias, according to the New York Times, further complicating a technology which may already makes students, faculty, and staff uneasy. Research on the effectiveness of these systems remain limited, and it’s important not to overlook how these technologies impact student’s sense of safety. 

Leveraging Technology To Evaluate Risks

Technology can play a major role in campus security plan, but safety managers may want to consider solutions which offer more transparency, and enable the team to communicate with students, faculty, and staff. 

A two-way anonymous tip-texting system provides a discrete medium for students to communicate suspicious activity on campus to safety officials. The system, which is compatible with a campus safety app, can help to find another way to identify risks on social media without violating student privacy. In addition to promoting trust among members of the community, it provides a way for students who may be afraid to speak up about what they’ve seen or heard due to fear of retaliation.

Implementing a campus safety app can also improve student security, versus technology which may add to a feeling of unease or feel threatening, such as facial recognition cameras. The app empowers students to take safety into their own hands, and users can set a safety timer while traveling across campus. Users can also directly call campus safety or local law enforcement during an emergency. Interested in learning more? Watch the short video below. 

Rave Guardian Safety App Video

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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