Security Firm’s AI Weapons Scanners Under Scrutiny as Student Attacked with Undetected Knife

A security firm specializing in the sale of AI weapons scanners to educational institutions is facing renewed scrutiny over the effectiveness of its technology after a student was attacked with a knife that went undetected by its $3.7 million system.

Last Halloween, Ehni Ler Htoo, a student in Utica, New York, was walking through the corridors of his school when another student approached him from behind and stabbed him with a knife. The victim’s lawyer, speaking exclusively to the BBC, revealed that the 18-year-old sustained multiple stab wounds to various parts of his body.

The knife used in the attack was able to bypass the multimillion-dollar weapons detection system provided by Evolv Technology, the security firm that aims to replace conventional metal detectors with AI scanners. Evolv’s scanners utilize advanced sensor technology and artificial intelligence to detect concealed weapons such as knives, firearms, and explosive devices, triggering an alert when a threat is detected.

The company claims high accuracy and has previously boasted about creating “weapons-free zones” using their technology. Evolv’s CEO, Peter George, has stated that their systems encompass comprehensive signatures for all existing weapons. Previous press releases listed the types of weapons the system can identify, including firearms, explosive devices, and knives.

However, a BBC investigation conducted last year unveiled that the system had a reliability issue with detecting large knives. In 24 walk-throughs, Evolv’s scanner failed to detect 42% of large knives, raising concerns about its effectiveness. The testing results indicated that potential clients, including schools, should be informed of this limitation. Despite the findings, Evolv expanded its presence in schools and now claims to have installations in hundreds of educational institutions throughout the United States.

The Stabbing Incident: In March 2022, the Utica Schools Board purchased Evolv’s weapons scanning system for 13 schools, and it was installed during the summer break. On October 31st, CCTV footage reportedly captured the attacker entering Proctor High School and passing through the Evolv weapons scanners. Brian Nolan, the Superintendent of Utica Schools, questioned how the student managed to bring a knife into the school when viewing the disturbing video of the incident.

The knife used in the stabbing was over 9 inches (22.8 cm) long. The subsequent internal investigation conducted by the Utica school district revealed that the Evolv Weapon Detection System was not designed to detect knives, according to Mr. Nolan. The scanners were removed from Proctor High School and replaced with 10 metal detectors, but the scanners continue to be used in the district’s remaining 12 schools due to budgetary constraints.

Since the attack, three additional knives have been discovered on students in other schools within the district where the Evolv systems are still in operation. The knives were found because they were reported to staff, not due to the weapons scanner detecting them. Mr. Nolan stated that the students who had the knives claimed to have passed through the weapons detection system without issue, further confirming its inability to detect knives.

Evolv’s Website: Following the stabbing incident, Evolv modified the wording on its website. Previously, the homepage boasted about “Weapons-Free Zones,” but it was later changed to “Safe Zones.” The current version now reads “Safer Zones.”

Evolv maintains that its system utilizes cutting-edge AI technology for weapon detection. However, critics argue that there is insufficient information about how the system operates and how effective it is in detecting different types of weapons.

The BBC reached out to Evolv with detailed inquiries about the incident in Utica, including questions regarding what the company communicated to schools regarding the system’s capabilities and limitations. However, Evolv did not respond to the queries.

Conor Healy from IPVM, a firm specializing in security equipment analysis, accused Evolv of exaggerating the system’s effectiveness. Healy emphasized that school officials, lacking expertise in weapons detection, often rely on audacious marketing claims, only to discover hidden flaws in the technology after investing millions of dollars. He criticized Evolv and other companies for capitalizing on the ignorance of these officials when it comes to security products that safeguard young people.

Although Evolv declined to comment, it referred the BBC to a blog post by its CEO, Peter George, defending the company’s limited disclosure about the technology’s inner workings. George argued that marketing weapons detection security requires a delicate balance between educating stakeholders on new technology and preventing potential misuse.

The BBC contacted seven other school districts that employ Evolv’s weapons scanners. Five did not respond, while two declined to comment on the matter.