Amid coronavirus, USC is requiring facial recognition scans of students living on campus, but the technology sparks controversy

The facial recognition device at USC also links to a questionable South Korean company that boasts contracts with government agencies.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, USC has deactivated the fingerprint scanners in its residential halls, requiring students remaining in some dorms to use facial recognition technology to gain access to their rooms. While the university said its facial recognition system “doesn’t store data,” the product description of the device involved says that its “massive memory” can store 1 million identity templates, 10 million event logs, and 20,000 image logs. And experts say that in order to recognize specific faces, any system must store data.

On top of that, the South Korean company that provided and maintains the technology boasts of doing business with the federal departments of justice and defense, as well as local law enforcement agencies. Yet every single one of those government entities said they have no record of any contract with the firm.

The devices run constantly

USC started using fingerprint identification in its residential halls in 2015 and added facial recognition in 2017, according to Chris Ponsiglione, director of USC housing and auxiliary services. USC is one of only ten U.S. universities currently using facial recognition technology on its campus, according to an ongoing survey of more than 100 prominent colleges by the technology activist group Fight for the Future. Among those schools, USC is the only one to acknowledge its use of the technology in comments made to The College Fix. USC said it uses facial recognition, as well as fingerprint scans, to prevent intruders from entering the dorms.

Fight for the Future and other activist groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, oppose facial recognition on college campuses. In addition to privacy concerns, they point out that no federal law prevents companies from obtaining and using an individual’s image without their consent. Laws don’t even require facial recognition systems to accurately identify people.

USC declined to make any official available for an interview but instead provided a statement:

Our residence halls use both student IDs and biometric technology to ensure no one who isn’t authorized to enter those buildings have access. We started using fingerprint identification in 2015 and facial recognition was added in 2017. The vast majority of students choose fingerprint technology, while some choose facial recognition technology. The facial recognition system doesn’t store data or provide analytics. Both fingerprint technology and facial recognition technology are considered state of the art, so we give students the option to use whichever one they prefer. Card reader technology isn’t as secure; a card could be stolen or otherwise used improperly. The information is accessible to Student Affairs and the Department of Public Safety when needed.

In the dorm entryways, cameras run constantly as students walk by. When a person enters the facial recognition camera’s field of view, whether just passing the screen or with the intention to scan their face, a circle appears on the screen to track their movement. When a face is in the center of the circle, a scan is taken and the circle turns from white to either soft red (a failed scan) to blue (a successful identification). Observing students using the device on a typical day seems to confirm the university’s statement that students prefer the fingerprint scanner, though some opted for facial scans.

In the midst of COVID-19, however, the fingerprint option was blocked to prevent use. Students remaining on campus during the pandemic were required to use the facial recognition technology for entry to their dorms unless they received a medical exemption.

“Based on direction from Student Health, the fingerprint readers were taken off line to reduce touch contact in line with social distancing guidelines,” Ponsiglione said in an email.

In 2017, Leo Boese, then-associate director of safety and security for USC Housing told Annenberg Media that during an emergency, the fingerprint system would allow administrators or law enforcement to identify how many students and their guests were in the dorms at any given time.

However, Ponsiglione said in an email that Boese’s statement was incorrect. Ponsiglione said that the system only stores “transactional data” when students walk into a building equipped with the technology but wouldn’t record when they leave. “The technology does not store facial recognition and fingerprint data,” he added.

Wael Abd-Almageed, a research associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at USC Viterbi School of Engineering, explained that it is impossible for a facial recognition device to recognize a user without a stored image. “Facial authentication compares a scan to a stored version of you and only grants access if the signatures are the same,” Abd-Almageed said. “You cannot use authentication without a reference photo.”

The reference photos make authentications using the signature details of a person’s face, Abd-Almageed explained. In this way, facial recognition works like a fingerprint of the face, measuring the distance between key features and verifying the identity of the user.

Contracts that can’t be found

The UBio Pro-X facial recognition devices that USC uses are manufactured by Virdi, a South Korean firm. It did not respond to multiple detailed emails seeking comment. UBTOS USA Inc., the South Korean wholesaler that provided and maintains the devices for USC, also did not respond to detailed questions sent by email.

UBTOS says on its website that it has contracts for surveillance technology with various Southern California institutions and federal agencies. In addition, several mid-size southern California cities, school districts and hotels are also listed on the company’s website as surveillance clients. Notably, the relatively small list of UBTOS clients also includes the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s Departments with contracts for forensic and evidence analysis, the Department of Defense with contracts for military-spec surveillance and utility hardware and the Department of Justice, which has no listed contracts.

Freedom of Information Act and Public Record Act requests were submitted to every public entity listed as a client for UBTOS, seeking records of their communications regarding or existing contracts with the company or any of the surveillance technology manufacturers UBTOS partners with as a wholesaler, including Virdi. No records were found in response to these requests from any of the public organizations listed on the company’s website.

USC holds a contract with the company for the installation and management of the UBio Pro-X devices, according to USC and a UBTOS employee who declined to provide his name. University officials declined to comment on details of the existing annual maintenance contract, but the UBTOS website lists USC as a client with “contracts for surveillance system, biometrics, and construction (low-voltage).”

Erica Darragh, the chair of the board of directors at Students for Sensible Drug Policy, wrote in an email interview that “we are immediately concerned about all use of facial recognition, but the fact that this company specifically references its relationship with law enforcement and government agencies suggests that there is already direct cooperation which could be used against students on any campus, including USC.”

USC said in an email that its campus police do not use facial recognition.

The UBTOS building is unapproachable, located on a nondescript corner of Vermont Street in downtown Los Angeles. Locked iron gates and concrete walls surround the two-story property on all sides, with sizable black orb security cameras on every corner of the building. There is no doorbell or public entryway and, often, no answer when making calls to the phone number for the company doing business inside. On a recent visit, a man who identified himself as a UBTOS employee answered a few brief questions and agreed to a longer interview. But he did not show up at the scheduled time and, after that, the company did not respond to multiple detailed requests for comment.