Feds Probe Marketing Push Behind AI ‘Weapons Detection’ Tool Used in Schools

‘All the guns, all the bombs:’ Evolv Technology acknowledges an FTC inquiry as regulators scrutinize company’s sweeping capabilities claims.

Anil Chitkara, the co-founder of Evolv Technology, speaks at the 2023 National Association of County Officials Legislative Conference. (Getty Images)

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Federal officials have opened an inquiry into the marketing practices of a security company that’s landed multi-million dollar school district contracts by promising its artificial intelligence-powered weapons detection scanners can ferret out threats with unrivaled speed and precision. 

Publicly traded Evolv Technology acknowledged that the Federal Trade Commission had “requested information about certain aspects of its marketing practices” in a disclosure to investors last week, following scrutiny that the company overstated the capabilities of its technology in promotions that could give customers, including schools, a false sense of security

Citing two anonymous sources, Bloomberg reported that Evolv is the subject of an FTC investigation into whether its scanners — essentially next-generation metal detectors with a heftier price tag — employ artificial intelligence to identify weapons in the ways that it claims.

It’s unclear whether Massachusetts-based Evolv’s sales pitches to the education sector are part of the federal probe. An FTC spokesperson declined to comment Tuesday. In its Oct. 12 disclosure form with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and in a statement this week to The 74, Evolv said the company was “pleased to answer” regulators’ questions. 

“When Evolv receives inquiries from regulators, our approach is to be cooperative and educate them about our company,” the statement continued. “The company stands behind its technology’s capabilities and performance track record.”

The company has claimed that it uses AI to scan for the unique “signatures” of tens of thousands of weapons, allowing it to distinguish “all the guns, all the bombs and all the large tactical knives” out there from everyday items like keys and laptops. 

Yet the scanner’s efficacy — including its ability to prevent campus violence — has faced pushback for several years, particularly by IPVM, an independent security and surveillance industry research group that tests and evaluates products. Conor Healy, the group’s director of government research, said that false and misleading marketing claims have been “a pattern with the company” for years. Among the inaccurate assertions, he said, is that the tool “eliminates the friction” that students experience when they pass through security everyday. 

“That has been shown to be just simply not true at all,” Healy told The 74 this week. “There’s quite a lot of friction. The schools that we’ve looked at have 20% to 60% false alarm rates.” 

Districts have increasingly turned to “weapons detection” systems from Evolv and competing security vendors in response to fears of school shootings — anxiety that the company says “keeps both students and staff from doing their best work.”

Evolv states that its system “combines powerful sensor technology with proven artificial intelligence” to identify threats like guns in hundreds of U.S. schools. Capable of scanning more than 4,000 people an hour, Evolv says its devices are “10X faster than metal detectors,” and “help reduce opportunities for bias” by decreasing secondary screenings by humans.

Evolv extols the benefits of its scanners well beyond schools’ physical safety. While frequent false alarms by traditional metal detectors lead to “security anxiety” and “inconvenient delays,” according to the company’s website, Evolv scanners offer “a more effective and dignified solution, fostering a safer, more inclusive environment that bolsters academic achievement and staff retention.” 

IPVM has accused the company of failing to substantiate that its product is 10 times faster than traditional metal detectors, and a 2022 BBC investigation found the scanners may miss certain knives and bombs. Meanwhile, IPVM has documented instances where false alarms were activated in schools by water bottles, binders and laptops.

In a statement to Pennsylvania-based IPVM last month, Evolv said “we understand if any of our past statements appeared to generalize our capabilities,” which may violate an FTC rule that requires company claims to be evidence-backed. 

With AI a constant, if little understood, buzzword across many sectors right now, the FTC in February warned companies against exaggerating the capabilities of their artificial intelligence offerings, adding that “false or unsubstantiated claims about a product’s efficacy are our bread and butter.” 

“The minute you hear the word AI in marketing, alarm bells should go off in your head,” said Healy, whose group has also done broader analyses of the school security industry and the efficacy of specific surveillance tools routinely installed in schools. 

“As far as [Evolv’s] artificial intelligence goes, it does not appear to be very intelligent,” he said, because it routinely fails to differentiate everyday school supplies like Chromebooks from weapons like guns. “What AI is actually in the system? That is something that Evolv has not told us very much about.” 

Evolv has resisted calls to disclose additional information about the ways its scanners function. While scanners’ sensitivity settings can alter their performance, a company spokesperson previously told The 74 that publicly sharing information about those settings “is irresponsible and puts people at greater risk.” 

“We must assume any published information regarding details of a physical screening system will be studied and leveraged by a bad actor seeking to do harm,” the statement continued. The company declined to comment on the false alarm rates reported by its customer districts, which include Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky.

 “Our systems are designed to detect many types of weapons and components of weapons, but there is no perfect solution that will stop 100% of threats, including ours, which is why security must include a layered approach that involves people, process and technology.” 

Knives became a point of conflict last year after the school district in Utica, New York, spent nearly $4 million to install Evolv scanners across 13 of its campuses. The scanners were ultimately removed after a student was stabbed multiple times with a knife during a fight in a high school hallway. The knife-wielding student had passed through an Evolv scanner with the blade in his backpack, a later investigation revealed. 

While the detectors had false alarms, including on a student’s lunch box, an Evolv scanner failed to alarm when an off-duty police officer accidentally brought a service revolver to a Utica district open house.

Meanwhile, in Buffalo, New York, Evolv scanners were credited for keeping a high school safe. Earlier this month, an 18-year-old pleaded guilty to a criminal weapons possession charge after he was caught trying to bring a handgun into a high school. A school security officer reportedly found the disassembled “ghost gun” in the teenager’s backpack as he passed through a weapons detector. Buffalo schools spent $2.7 million to roll out the Evolv system earlier this year. A Buffalo schools spokesperson declined to comment.

As companies increasingly market products with artificial intelligence capabilities to schools, school security consultant Kenneth Trump predicts — or at least hopes — that regulation is imminent. He pointed to new rules in New York that prohibit facial recognition in schools. The ban was adopted after an upstate school district’s decision to install surveillance cameras with facial recognition capabilities prompted an outcry. 

“The marketing claims are so off the charts by many vendors that there’s really no chance for the average school administrator to know what’s true, what’s false and really the gaps and the limitations that these products have,” said Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services. Though he expects regulators to soon reign in security companies, “up until that happens, how many school districts are going to fall victim to questionable marketing and grandiose ideas that don’t come to fruition?”

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