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American schools enter the age of the electronic self-contained automated protective environment (ESCAPE)

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles March 4, 2020
Can Evolv Technology’s combination of RF waves, electromagnetic sensors and AI keep students safe?

evolv body scanner

South Carolina is not generally known for being first at things. Don't get me wrong. The state is home to thousands of acres of glorious farm and woodlands, miles and miles of peerless beaches, a booming union-free mecca for manufacturers like Boeing and BMW, and Charleston, the most beautiful little town in America. Ever since the first shot of the American Civil War turned out badly, South Carolinians have avoided taking the initiative.

No more. It's a dubious distinction but two of South Carolina's 20 largest school districts recently became the first in the nation to replace metal detectors with body scanners for weapons screening and threat detection. Spartanburg County District 6--the 20th largest school district with approximately 11,500 students--and Florence 1--the 11th largest with over 16,000 students — installed Evolv Technology's weapons detection systems, which the company claims can detect guns, bombs, and large knives while ignoring iPhones, books, and Skittles

In place of those old school (sic) metal detectors, schools in those districts are now equipped with millimeter wave full-body scanners-- similar to, but more advanced, than modern airport scanners. Many of those devices come from Massachusetts-based Evolv Technology, which it says can scan 60 people a minute using machine learning algorithms that detect threats and then notify security guards exactly where the suspect objects are on a person's body. Welcome to the age of the Electronic Self-Contained Automated Protective Environment (ESCAPE.)

The epidemic of American school shootings and the demands of frightened parents for action has spurred a $3 billion school security industry. The idea is to provide "solutions" that range from hiring armed guards and putting locks on classroom doors to advanced technology that snoop on students' social media postings, sniff out their vaping devices, and recognizes their faces and locations.

Across the country, voters are passing referendums to fund school security, and most state education departments now offer school safety grants. The icing on the cake is that communities are beginning to spend the first of nearly $1 billion over ten years that Congress designated to improve school safety after the deaths of 17 people at a Parkland, Florida, high school in 2018—the only federal law to address mass shootings at schools.

All of this frantic and largely uncoordinated activity has alarmed privacy advocates as well as the majority of Americans who believe that the government is refusing to address the real issue, which is too many guns too readily available to too many people. A cynic might say Congress has simply thrown a billion dollars at the problem and told communities, "Here's some money. You go figure it out but don't ask me to the cross the National Rifle Association (NRA)."

There is also the problem of does it work? Amelia Vance, director of youth and education privacy for the Future of Privacy Forum, is especially skeptical of technology that makes promises that lack hard, independent, verifiable proof that they are valid. She recently told Motherboard in a specific reference to Evolv's body scanning product:

One of the things we’ve seen again and again post-Parkland is school administrators being flooded with proposals for expensive technology that have no evidence base behind them. “I think it is really, really important with this technology in particular to deeply investigate and seek out the external research and external proof that this technology works.

Is it really worth the discrepancy in cost? Any time you’re spending money on something you’re taking money away from more school counselors. If we’re spending a ton of money on this new technology, which could improve the surveillance effect versus a metal detector, but we’re not able to bring in any more counselors, then any advantageous effect would be mitigated.

The Evolv story

Evolv Technology, the company behind South Carolina schools' new weapons screening and threat protection system, was co-founded in 2013 by Mike Ellenbogen, a physicist and entrepreneur with a long career helping to shape the explosives detection industry.

Similar to the TSA's body scanners, the Evolv solutions combine millimeter-wave technology and several other sensors to non-intrusively screen people as they walk through the machine. Unlike airport body scanners that require people to enter, turn 90 degrees, and put their arms in the air, the Edge system screens subjects as they walk between two columns and can, the company says, produce an analysis of what someone may be carrying in about a hundredth of a second.

One of the key appeals of the system is that it is non-intrusive, allowing people to enter public spaces without the need to empty pockets, remove belts, check bags, and other time- consuming procedures. The result, the company says, is the world's fastest, most accurate, and least intrusive weapons detection system.

How does it work under the hood? Here, the story gets a little murkier. Evolv's system is proprietary, and the company has not been forthcoming in providing details. In an interview, Ellenbogen dropped a few hints:

We can effectively eliminate motion blur, so we can screen people as they are walking, and they can walk through with all of the things they would normally carry – backpack, briefcase or a purse. We can screen for firearms, explosives, suicide vests or belts as folks are entering at a rate of about 900 people per hour through one lane.We all carry a cellphone, keys, wallet and belt buckle – all of the things that traditionally set off a traditional metal detector. Using a combination of smarter sensors with a lot of computing power allows the system to work very quickly. Using machine learning or AI, we can enable people to walk through quickly, smoothly, unobtrusively and provide an automated red light or green light decision but without creating another hassle or bottleneck.

My take

I have no doubvt that Evolv's system provides a heightened sense of security but lingering questions remain. 

  • How effective are technology solutions like Evolv in protecting schools from shooting incidents, compared to other less expensive safety options?
  • What are the long-term drawbacks?
  • What are the tradeoffs?

I suspect that there is not enough data yet to make those kinds of determinations. There have been reports that the South Carolina schools involved didn't ask for independent third-party verification before committing to Evolv. There needs to be a lot more guidance, transparency and oversight in a market that is currently fueled mainly by fear.

Evolv is a growth-stage startup with total funding now at more than $75 million. Its marquee investors include Bill Gates so I guess it's got to be good. Right?

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