Last month, Esteban Wood and eight other University of Miami students received an ominous email. The message only contained a Zoom link and a one-sentence explanation: Dean of Students Ryan Holmes wanted to discuss the “incident that happened on September 4, 2020 at the Whitten University Center.”
Wood and the others attended a peaceful protest that day against the university’s reopening plan, but no one knew why Holmes wanted to talk to them. The message was vague, but what was even more confusing was the choice of recipients. None of the students actually organized the protest. Three were student journalists who covered the demonstration. And only two were part of an activist student group, UMiami Employee Student Alliance, that participated.
“We got to thinking, how did they choose those nine students?” Wood, a member of UMESA who received the email, told Forbes.
The University of Miami said in a statement it “does not utilize facial recognition technology”—but students and digital rights non-profit Fight For the Future aren’t so sure. They cite the campus police chief’s resume, which says the university has an extensive camera system that uses “sophisticated algorithms” for “motion detection, facial recognition, object detection and much more.” They also point to an interview with a student magazine earlier this month in which Chief David Rivero said his department used Florida Department of Law Enforcement facial recognition software to catch a burglar at a fraternity house.
“It sure seems like the University of Miami is using facial recognition to target and intimidate students who are exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Lia Holland, a Fight For the Future organizer, in a Medium post. “If that’s not the case, then they need to tell their Chief of Police to stop claiming they use this technology and ban facial recognition from their campus entirely.”
In an interview with Forbes, Rivero said he was “misleading” on his resume and has since fixed it. He said he was listing the possible uses of the university’s security camera system, but it doesn’t have facial recognition capabilities or a database of photos to compare video footage to, despite the reference on his resume.
“In order to have the cameras be able to use facial recognition, they have to be positioned at the right angles. Our cameras are on top of buildings and in hallways,” he said. “They’re not positioned in order to be able to maximize facial recognition.”
Rivero said the students emailed by the dean about the protest were identified using video footage and “basic investigative techniques,” which he declined to detail.
Anh Nguyen, an assistant professor of computer science at Auburn University, told Forbes that even if the cameras were at the “wrong” angles, that by itself doesn’t discount the possibility of facial recognition being used.
Rivero added that campus police have submitted requests to use software from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in the past, but