Profits Skyrocket for AI Gun Detection Used in Schools — Despite Dubious Results

Amid aggressive marketing to schools, Evolv announced it had doubled its first-quarter earnings compared to last year.

The Evolv Express weapons detection system flags a weapon that an Evolv Technology employee, wears, May 25, 2022, in New York.
The Evolv Express weapons detection system flags a weapon worn by an Evolv Technology employee, on May 25, 2022, in New York. Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP

“If you are serious about our systems, then let’s jump on a quick call this week,” Anthony Geraci, a sales representative of Evolv Technology, wrote in an email to New Mexico’s Clovis Municipal Schools last November. “This is not a pressure tactic.”

There was, however, pressure: If Clovis didn’t purchase the systems by the end of the year on a four-year agreement, Geraci explained, the prices would escalate. “We just want you to know this option exists and don’t want you upset when you hear that others have taken advantage of this option,” Geraci wrote.

The tactic eventually worked. It would be another high-priced sale for Evolv, a leading company in the world of weapons detection systems that use artificial intelligence.

Local media reported in March that Clovis bought the technology for $345,000, funded by the Federal CARES Act, a Covid-19 relief measure. Evolv, though, didn’t announce the sale until May 9 — timed so that the company could promote the purchase in its first-quarter earnings release.

Earlier in May, before the announcement, Evolv officials had asked Clovis if they could tout the sale in their earnings report, according to internal emails. And on May 10, Evolv named the purchase — alongside half a dozen other school districts — in a webcast.

Evolv, a publicly traded company, had much to brag about. Despite public reports on Evolv’s overpromises on efficiency and effectiveness for its technology, the company’s aggressive marketing to schools paid off: Evolv announced it had doubled its earnings compared to last year’s first quarter and saw its stock price rise 167 percent over the past year.

“The salespeople will use whatever leverage they have, and there is a real, genuine fear about weapons and shootings in America today,” said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a professor of law at American University and an expert on surveillance. “It plays right into the salesperson’s game plan to market fear as hard as they can.”

“It plays right into the salesperson’s game plan to market fear as hard as they can.”

Evolv has come under intense criticism for the faults in its technology, including incidents in which guns and knives bypassed the system in schools — with, in two cases, students being stabbed. Nonetheless, the company announced $18.6 million in total revenue for the first quarter of 2023, an increase of 113 percent compared to the first quarter last year, beating its prior estimates.

CEO Peter George also said Evolv would add at least one more school building daily in the next three months to its roster of clients.

“Weapons detection is not perfect, but it adds a layer of protection that can help deter, detect and mitigate risk,” said Dana Loof, Evolv’s chief marketing officer, in a statement to The Intercept. “We are a partner with our customers and work with them every step of the way towards helping to create a safer environment.”

With its star status and value rising, the company recently hired former Tesla product leader Parag Vaish as chief digital product officer.

“Just like digital advances can bring civilians to space, drive cars autonomously, and help address challenges in climate change,” George said, “developments and artificial intelligence can be applied to the gun violence epidemic gripping the country.”

Public records, obtained by research publication IPVM and shared with The Intercept, reveal the extent the company goes to persuade schools to buy, and advertise, its technology.

In internal emails to the Clovis school district, Evolv sent the school a plan recommending the use of conveyor belts alongside the AI system — offered as a means of efficiency, but in effect rendering Evolv’s technology an auxiliary for more traditional security procedures.

Evolv also sent the district marketing materials, including template letters to send to parents to notify them of the technology.

“One of the things we have seen in the past year is that customers who opt to not make an announcement are oftentimes subject to misinformation by local media and critics,” Beatriz Almeida, Evolv’s marketing director, wrote to Clovis, “and we like to get ahead of these potential situations by helping you craft the story and tell your side before any misconceptions can occur.” (The Clovis school district did not respond to a request for comment.)

Experts say that Evolv’s pressure on schools to correct the narrative could be harmful. “Labeling facts about Evolv’s detection capabilities as ‘misinformation’ distorts the public’s understanding of what Evolv can and cannot do,” said Don Maye, head of operations at IPVM.

Loof, from Evolv, said, “We strive to be transparent with our customers and security professionals about our technology’s capabilities and that our focus is on weapons that could cause mass casualty.”

Prior reports have illustrated how easily the Evolv alerts sound with metal objects, including misidentifying a lunch box for a bomb, but Clovis went ahead with the Evolv collaboration. And officials with the schools agreed to collaborate on the Evolv press release announcing the sale, according to internal emails.

“Evolv gives us the security we need,” Loran Hill, senior director of operations at Clovis, said in Evolv’s press release, “and since it can tell the difference between threats and most of the everyday items people bring into school, our students’ routines won’t change when they come to school, keeping anxiety levels low and the focus on education.”


AI Tries (and Fails) to Detect Weapons in Schools

The public documents obtained by The Intercept indicate that everything wasn’t perhaps as smooth as advertised. The Intercept has previously reported that research shows metallic objects repeatedly trigger alerts, despite Evolv’s claim that it’s not a metal detection system. 

The sensitivity to metal came up for the Clovis school district. In an email earlier this month from Hill herself, she discussed the system’s use during the recent prom. “We all learnt a lot about clutch purses,” Hill wrote.

“Honestly didn’t think about those,” Mark Monfredi from the integrator Stone Security, responded. ”But being the same construction as the metal eye glass cases” — apparently another item that set off false alarms — “it makes sense.” (Stone Security did not respond to a request for comment.)

Despite Evolv’s initial pitch of efficiency to the school district — the company said a single-lane system could scan up to 2,000 children an hour — other Evolv internal documents sent to the school outline ways to speed up the scanning process. The two options include “The Pass Around Method” for sending students around the machines and “Conveyer Belt Addition,” the latter resembling airport security checkpoints. Both options require students to remove laptops or other “nuisance alarm items” from their bags that may set off the system.

“We are upfront with our customers and prospects that if they want the potential for a sterile environment, they will need TSA-style screening,” said Loof, referring to the Transportation Security Administration.

In another document, titled “Empowering Student Well-Being,” the company attempts to spin potential faults in its technology — namely false alarms — as potentially beneficial experiences for the students.

“Some of the students who get stopped often for secondary checks, see the interaction as part of their daily routine,” says one school official promoted in Evolv’s materials for its clients. “It gives them a chance to have a positive conversation with an adult to start the day. This even happens for students who don’t set off an alert.”

Despite the need to propose workarounds to make the system function properly, George, the CEO, couldn’t help touting about Evolv’s technology on the earnings webcast: “We’re really, really, really good at detecting guns.”

Join The Conversation