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Controversial Gun-Detection AI Sparks Debate in NYC: Promises vs Reality

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By Georgia Gee

Email Exchanges Show the Path of a Debatable AI Gun-Detection Tech into NYC

In February 2022, discussions began between the team of New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Evolv, a firm specializing in artificial intelligence for detecting guns. An email chain from Evolv's side came with a brochure highlighting potential collaboration spots: the Port Authority Bus Terminal, schools, hospitals, and popular spots like Times Square in NYC. Notably absent from their proposed locations, however, was the subway system.

Following a face-to-face meeting a few days afterward, Evolv co-founder Anil Chitkara tried once more to market the company's technology—this time by leveraging influential connections.

"In my previous communication, I pointed out that since 2014, Linda Reid, who serves as the Vice President of Security at Walt Disney World in Florida, has been familiar with our company and has implemented numerous systems of ours across the Parks and Disney Springs," Chitkara explained in an email dated February 7 addressed to the Office of the Mayor, which WIRED acquired. "They have effectively used the Evolv Express for weapon detection… This could offer some valuable insights into your considerations regarding everyone's contribution to security."

The analogy between the security measures in New York City and those in Disney World seemed to have convinced the team led by Adams. A few weeks after, the technology from Evolv was implemented to conduct screenings on guests at a municipal hospital in the Bronx, a location that had experienced a shooting incident within its emergency department in January 2022. However, the initiative did not yield the desired results—the detection devices erroneously signaled threats 85 percent of the time throughout the pilot, which lasted for seven months.

Should Evolv's performance in detecting threats within a hospital setting prove inadequate, its efficacy within the New York City subway system could potentially decline further. During a conference call with investors on March 15, 2024, CEO Peter George conceded that their technology wasn't designed with subway environments in mind. George highlighted, "Subways, specifically, do not represent an ideal scenario for our application," attributing this to the disruptions caused by the railway system.

In response to a tragic incident where a man lost his life after being shoved onto subway tracks in late March, Mayor Adams declared the initiation of trials for Evolv's firearm detection technology in the city's subway systems. On March 28, Adams referred to this initiative as a pivotal moment, comparing it to President Kennedy's ambitious vow to send a man to the moon, describing it as "a Sputnik moment."

Alexandra Smith Ozerkis, speaking on behalf of Evolv, informed WIRED that the creation of their main product, Evolv Express, which was introduced in 2019, was not specifically designed with the New York City subway system in consideration. However, she emphasized that as a company driven by its mission, they are always willing to explore and adapt their technology for use in new settings when such opportunities arise.

Nevertheless, the firm Mayor Adams is considering to ensure the safety of New York's residents has a history of controversies nationwide, raising doubts about the effectiveness of its technology. The company's technology, claiming to utilize "electromagnetic fields and sophisticated sensors" to identify weapons like firearms and blades, has failed to detect them on numerous occasions, especially in educational institutions. Despite these failures and the recent revelation that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has launched an inquiry into Evolv, following a 2023 investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into the company's advertising strategies, the Adams administration remains undeterred. This unwavering stance is notable, given the company's emphasis on its ties to former New York Police Department employees now within its ranks during its promotional efforts.

Diverse Group

In 2022, Adams assigned the task of identifying a solution for gun detection to Philip Banks III, New York’s deputy mayor. Prior to this role, Banks held the position of chief of department for the NYPD, a post he left in 2014 due to a federal investigation into bribery and corruption, during which he was identified as a coconspirator without being indicted. (No charges were brought against Banks.)

Adams stated in May 2022 that he discovered Evolv through an online search. However, Ozerkis, representing Evolv, informed WIRED that the NYPD had reached out to Evolv with an interest in examining and evaluating their screening technology as a component of their comprehensive strategy to reduce violent crime in the city.

Sheon Han

Oliver Ben

Gabrielle Caplan

Jaina Grey

Significant connections existed among former NYPD colleagues. Both Adams and Banks ascended through the ranks of the police force, a trajectory shared by a person mentioned by Chitkara in his communication to the mayor's team, who was an account executive at Evolv at the time. Dominick D’Orazio, previously in charge of Evolv's sales in the northeast US and later elevated to a regional manager position in April, had served as a commander in Brooklyn South under Banks’ supervision when Banks was the deputy chief of patrol for Borough Brooklyn South. Banks, however, has refuted any claims of having met D’Orazio while the latter was employed at Evolv.

George, the CEO of Evolv, has highlighted the company's ties with the NYPD as a key marketing strategy for its technology. Speaking at a conference in June 2022, George mentioned, "Roughly 33% of our sales team consists of ex-police officers. Our representative in New York, in particular, is a former NYPD officer. He's exceptionally effective in his role because he truly grasps the needs of our clientele. It's like he knows the insider's signal."

David Cohen, who previously served as the deputy commissioner of intelligence for the NYPD, is also a member of Evolv's Security Advisory Board.

The Mayor's Office has emphasized that it has not made a definitive decision to install Evolv technology permanently. "It's important to clarify that we have NOT committed to installing Evolv technology in subway stations," Kayla Mamelak, the deputy press secretary for the Mayor’s Office, stated in an email to WIRED. "What we have announced is the initiation of a 90-day exploration phase to consider the utilization of technologies like Evolv within our subway stations."

Experts in civil rights and technology have contended that the use of Evolv's detection devices in subway systems is expected to be ineffective. "This approach to public safety is superficial," stated Albert Fox Cahn, the creator of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, an organization dedicated to advocating for privacy rights. "It fails to present a credible resolution for the nation's biggest transportation network."

Furthermore, implementing the firm's tech solutions could prove not only futile but potentially escalate the presence of law enforcement in the daily experiences of New York City residents, amplifying Mayor Adams' law-and-order priorities. The NYC subway system encompasses 472 stations. "Essentially, this amounts to about 1,000 entrances to subway stations," states Sarah Kaufman, the head of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University. "For Evolv's technology to work as intended, it would need to be installed at each of these entrances, necessitating constant surveillance."

Based on the proposed guidelines shared by the NYPD, the protocols for applying weapons-detection technology within the subway system lack clarity and continue to depend significantly on law enforcement personnel. The document states, "The supervisor at the checkpoint will decide how often passengers are checked (for instance, every fifth or every tenth passenger)," indicating that the selection process will also hinge on the number of police staff present to conduct the checks.

The New York City subway system sees an average of 3.6 million commuters each day. If one out of every ten passengers were to be stopped, this would result in 360,000 inspections daily.

Cahn points out that individuals will frequently have to endure intrusive and bothersome inspections. He highlights that the city consistently opts for noticeable security actions, despite their lack of efficacy.

Education Essentials

In the correspondence with New York City authorities who were present at the discussion, Chitkara praised Evolv's effective implementation in educational institutions. However, it was noted that the detection systems have repeatedly missed identifying firearms and other weapons at several instances. As the Adams administration was being convinced to test out the technology, confidential emails from a significant school district employing Evolv's solutions revealed instances where ordinary items were incorrectly identified by the detection devices.

Jacqueline Barone, the principal at Piedmont Middle School within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, expressed her sentiments towards the end of 2022, saying, “The straightforward answer might be to advise students to opt for standard notebooks over binders.” However, she shared, “It deeply pains me to have to restrict students or educators from using specific materials due to the scanners incorrectly identifying them as weapons.”

Han Sheon

Oliver Ben

Gabrielle Caplan

Grey Jaina

In mid-April, during a panel discussion at a conference in Las Vegas, the school district's chief operating officer, alongside an executive from Evolv, declared their decision to phase out metal three-ring binders.

"Moving into the upcoming academic year, educators will explore different options for classroom materials," says Jessica Saunders, a representative for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, in a communication with WIRED. She further notes that student laptops are commonly the cause of triggering the weapons detection system.

At the same time, a lawsuit has been filed against the company by a teenage student from upstate New York. He claims that Evolv falsely advertised its technology's capabilities and blames the company for its failure to identify the sizable knife used in his stabbing.

Recently, a collective lawsuit has been initiated by investors of Evolv, alleging that the company violated securities regulations through deceptive communications, which resulted in significant monetary damages. Additionally, the plaintiffs argue that the technology fails to consistently identify knives or firearms.

"According to Ozerkis in a discussion with WIRED, Evolv Express systems offer the flexibility to adjust the security settings and sensitivity levels, which can be customized by the client depending on their unique requirements and the nature of the events they are hosting. This customization capability doesn't imply a failure in the technology's effectiveness. Rather, it highlights that the security experts tasked with safeguarding a particular venue have the autonomy to tailor the screening process to detect a broader or different set of threats based on their assessment."

"Spreading the News"

Currently, within the scope of New York City's trial initiative, a compulsory waiting period has been established. It's expected to start towards the end of June and will continue for 90 days. The Mayor's Office has also indicated that the city plans to investigate the deployment of various technologies and firms.

"Mamelak from the Mayor’s Office mentions that they are engaging with numerous technology firms, and the mayor emphasized that the purpose of the press conference was to disseminate information."

ZeroEyes, a rival to Evolv, may be among the contenders being looked at. Similar to Evolv, ZeroEyes had Mike Klein lobbying for them with the Mayor’s Office in both 2022 and 2023, as shown in official records. (Klein informed WIRED that he has since ceased representing the firm.)

Up to this point, ZeroEyes has not achieved complete success in the transportation sector: In December, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority discreetly concluded its trial initiative with the firm. A spokesperson from ZeroEyes informed WIRED that they were unable to verify if their system would undergo testing in New York.

Starting from the commencement of the waiting period, members of the public will be given a 45-day window to provide their feedback on the technology's application, which will then be reviewed by the Mayor's Office. However, it's important to note that the administration under Mayor Adams is not required to make any changes to the policy based on

Advocates for public safety are not optimistic about their worries being addressed. "This appears to be a recurring theme," states Daniel Schwarz, a privacy and technology strategist with the New York Civil Liberties Union. "There's a continuous trend of increasing surveillance technologies and investing more in police and surveillance systems, rather than focusing on the essential services required by the people of New York."

During the media briefing at Fulton Station, positioned beside Deputy Mayor Banks and an Evolv scanner, Adams appeared confident that the technology would prove effective.

"Bring in the scanners," Adams declared, emphasizing, "This marks a significant advancement in ensuring public safety."

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