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New Subway Security Theater Just Dropped: Controversial AI Weapons Scanner

The mayor convened his top leadership to announce the future testing of a weapons screening system that may or may not work as advertised.

Eric Adams and his senior leadership team in the Fulton Street subway station posed next to an AI-powered weapons screening device

(Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office)

What's a mayor to do when the subways are statistically and historically speaking, extremely safe, but the toxic combination of a fear-mongering press, opportunistic politicians, the viral amplification of social media, and, perhaps, his own grandstanding, have created a public perception that the subways are not safe?

This conundrum has dogged Eric Adams from the very beginning of his mayoralty, and he has tried a variety of strategies for solving it: send more cops into the subways; complain about the press; send more cops into the subways; make it easier to lock up people with mental illness without their consent; send more cops into the subways; hire a clumsy robot that can't navigate stairs and requires constant babysitting; send more cops into the subways.

While some of these strategies may have some influence on the rate of crime at the margins, their primary purpose isn't to change the reality of what happens on the subways—if there's a number of police we can surge into the subway system that will actually prevent random acts of violence from taking place, we haven't hit it yet. Rather, the purpose is to change people's perception of that reality. It is, by definition, security theater.

On Thursday morning, dogged by a fresh spate of statistically insignificant but anecdotally alarming subway incidents, the Adams administration's security theater repertory company unveiled a new act: AI-powered body scanners that purport to detect guns (and, possibly, at some settings, though maybe not settings you'd ever want to use, knives?) even as they allow people to pass through them relatively quickly.

"Public safety is the actual safety, and it is how people are feeling," Adams said at a press conference staged in the lower level of the Fulton Transit Center in Lower Manhattan attended by much of his leadership team, most of the NYPD brass, and MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber. "Facts don't matter if people don't believe they are in a safe environment."

And so the mayor and his top aides were underground, in a corner of the subway station, to announce to much fanfare—what, exactly? As the mayor put it: "We'll be publishing the impact-and-use policy for electric electronic electromagnetic weapons detection systems here in New York City. This kicks off the 90 day waiting period before this type of technology can be tested and used in our city."

Put another way: The administration has filed the papers to allow it, in three months, to begin pilot programs for next-generation metal detectors like those made by the Massachusetts-based company Evolv, a sample of which was the centerpiece of Thursday's press conference. The Evolv unit, which is portable, consists of two shoulder-height pillars through which people pass. If the system detects a weapon, a noise sounds and a monitor shows whoever is staffing the checkpoint where on the body of the person the suspected weapon is located. 

Gun violence is not, statistically speaking, a big problem on the subway. But again, we're not addressing reality here, but perception.

Does the Evolv system work? That appears to be a very contentious question. At the sensor's least sensitive settings, according to company literature, it only picks up large items like long guns and pressure-cooker bombs that any officer staffing the checkpoint would likely notice even without the system. Evolv claims that it can, at more sensitive settings, detect small pistols and even knives, but concedes that as these higher settings the rate of false positives, and the attendant delays and searches that they produce, increases.

A machine with a high rate of false positives might have some effect on people's perception of safety in the subways, but it would also create lines, delays, and missed trains for the people who use that subway. Adams said Thursday he considers delays a worthwhile trade-off for an increase in the public perception of safety. "People will wait in line to be safe while they're on the A line," he quipped.

And there's some question as to whether the sophisticated AI-powered machines even do what Evolv claims they can do: The company is being investigated by both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission over claims of its products' capabilities. 

Adams countered that corporate customers his administration discusses public safety with have reviewed the Evolv system favorably, and noted that public investment in technology like this helps to drive that technology to improve.

"I say to those who are afraid of scanners and would rather not walk through it: I'd rather you be safe. So let's bring on the scanners."

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