Erica Guelfi | October 27, 2022
As a third-year student, I am well acquainted with the typical crowded shuffle at the entrance to every dining hall as students scramble to get their phones or Commodore Cards out of their pockets to scan for entry. So, imagine my surprise when I arrived at the Commons Center one day at the start of the semester to see people entering the dining hall with the simple use of a face-scanner, completely hands-free.
A quick bit of research (as well as a slew of posters and advertising fliers posted around campus) enlightened me to this new development. Known as Vanderbilt VisionPass, this newly installed technology uses facial biometrics to allow students to enter, following a quick scan of their faces.
Biometric technology is hardly a new concept to most students currently at Vanderbilt. As a generation who grew up during the 21st-century technology boom, we have seen biometrics flourish over the past few years. Notably, most phones now come preloaded with the feature, allowing users to create a “Face ID” during setup to unlock their phone. For most students, it is a no-brainer to enable this feature, as it is incredibly convenient to pick up a phone and have it unlock itself.
However, as biometric technology becomes more normalized and ingrained into our culture, the question arises: who has access to this information? Despite its many conveniences, there is a darker side to biometric technology. Primarily, privacy concerns have plagued this innovation since its beginnings, bringing into question what rights and protections apply to the acquisition and use of facial biometrics data.
For instance, as Apple’s Face ID increased in popularity, reports emerged from several sources on how police could potentially use the technology to force people to open their phones. While a more recent court order prohibited this practice in an investigation, news stories have continued to come out about police violating this order.
Similar issues were brought to light during many of the Black Lives Matter and post-Roe v. Wade protests, when stories of how protesters were being found and charged using facial identification software and pictures they had posted online came out. These reports incited large amounts of fear, leading many to take preventative measures, including the use of makeup to confuse facial recognition algorithms. While the efficacy of these countermeasures is up for debate, the underlying fear behind the actions is impossible to deny. Investigations are still ongoing as to just how much surveillance was used during the protests.
Vanderbilt students likely have nothing to worry about in terms of privacy, however. Vanderbilt’s website clearly displays that face IDs are a numerical representation of key facial metrics, not an actual scan of student’s faces. Additionally, these numbers cannot be reverse engineered. Students can scan into the Commons dining hall with the peace of mind that their information is being kept safe.
Currently, the VisionPass system is only available on Commons, although student feedback will determine if the feature has a future in campus-wide implementation. One particular point of convenience is that even when Commodore Cards are not working, the second-party system implemented by the scanners will grant entry to dining halls, allowing users to bypass potential issues with Vanderbilt’s card system.
While not the most revolutionary technology, the VisionPass system allows for a more streamlined entry process for busy students. With the packed schedules many Vanderbilt students maintain, every extra second counts. Perhaps this technology will be extended to other parts of campus, including other dining halls or residence halls, making the entire process of accessing campus resources a quick, hands-free experience.
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