May 22, 2022

Mayor Adams explores new tech to detect weapons in schools, but security expert raises questions

Mayor Adams is proposing a neat technological solution to the longstanding and messy dilemma of how to keep the city’s public schools safe without over-policing them.

“I’m going to be rolling out a device in a few days that we’re testing that allows us in a humane way to identify guns and weapons,” he said on Feb. 23 about a pilot program at one of the city’s public hospitals using weapons scanners from the security technology company Evolv.
Evolv says its devices are an improvement on traditional metal detectors because they can distinguish weapons from other metal items based on their shape, allowing users to pass through the machines without stopping and avoid emptying their pockets and bags.

“We’re currently in the process of testing it and we’re going to place it in schools so we can do a better job of identifying weapons,” Adams added in remarks that were posted to Evolv’s official Twitter account.

Evolv co-founder Anil Chitkara confirmed the company is running a pilot program at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, which was first reported by Gotham Gazette, but declined to discuss the specifics of other activity in the city, adding only that “our mission is fully aligned with Mayor Adams.”

Adams hasn’t announced any official plans to install the devices in schools, and any new contracts would likely have to open up for bids.

One security expert who has closely watched Evolv, warned that while the company’s technology is real, there are big questions about whether the machines can live up to their lofty sales pitch. He added that the devices have particular vulnerabilities that could undermine their effectiveness in schools — including a tendency to mistake Chromebook laptops for guns because of the shape of the computers’ metal hinges.

“While Evolv claims to have [the ability] to detect all weapons… the reality is the system operates much like a metal detector,” said Donald Maye, the director of operations of IPVM, a trade publication that specializes in analysis of surveillance technology.
Evolv has shot to the top of its field, boasting that its devices have screened more than 200 million people and have been used in marquee venues like professional sports stadiums and museums.

Though the company takes pains to distinguish its product from traditional metal detectors, the underlying mechanism is similar, according to IPVM, relying on electromagnetic waves that bounce off metal to trigger an alarm. Evolv’s machines, however, use that information to generate an image, which is then run through a database on a computer attached to the machine to see if it matches the shape of a weapon.

That can lead to some false alarms.
When a school district in Urbana, Ill. tested the product, they found that the devices “pinged” between 60 and 70% of the time when Chromebooks passed through because the metal hinges in the laptops resemble the shape of a gun, according to a video of a school board hearing. Chromebooks are commonly distributed in schools, including in New York City.

Maye said the company has also acknowledged that items like umbrellas and glasses cases can trigger a false alarm.

A company sales rep at the meeting in Urbana said students could pass through with the laptops above their heads, and that the devices improve over time through machine learning.
Chitkara acknowledged the Chromebook issue, but said the company has “worked with a number of the K-12 Schools who are using our systems in different ways to address Chromebooks, if they alarm.”

Maye added that IPVM has asked Evolv to independently test its products, but the company hasn’t cooperated — a rarity in the industry, he said. Maye said he doesn’t know of any other public, independent evaluations of Evolv’s tech.

Chitkara countered that IPVM asked to test the product in order to “identify and publicly share what holes can be poked in our system,” and argued that allowing the test would pose security risks for its clients. He added that the company allows customers to test the product themselves, and said an independent evaluation from the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security will be published next week.
The effectiveness of the technology isn’t the only question.

Maye said the product comes at a much higher price than many of its competitors, with one analysis from IPVM estimating the average price of a single Evolv device at roughly $120,000 for a four-year contract.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much the city paid for its existing school metal detectors, or how many machines the city has. The NYPD, which oversees school safety, did not respond to questions about its discussions with Evolv.
The potential price tag is just one of the red flags for 18-year-old Bronx senior Alexandra Carmona, who attends a school with full-time metal detectors.

Carmona is pushing to remove scanners altogether, recounting an uncomfortable experience where a metal wire in her bra set off the alarm.

“They made me walk through like five times… there were like five people around me,” she recalled. “That made me really uncomfortable.”
Carmona said she thinks it’s important “for us to know if these metal detectors work or not,” given the potentially large investment.
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City students have frequently complained about the slow-moving lines to pass through traditional metal detectors, which they say can make them late to class or force them to wait outside in the cold.

Faster-moving lines is one of the major selling points of Evolv’s devices, but Carmona said that wouldn’t change her opinion on the machines.
“We don’t want metal detectors at all,” she said.

Gregory Floyd, the president of Teamsters Local 237, the union representing hospital police and school safety agents, said he’s not sold yet either — and that his members would need training on any new devices.
“It may be some ground breaking technology and look pretty, but we don’t know if it works or even how it works,” he said.