Company behind gun detection tech previewed in subway faces multiple lawsuits and federal investigations

Evolv, whose weapons detection scanners were recently demonstrated by Mayor Eric Adams, is being investigated by the SEC and the FTC for allegedly making misleading statements about what its technology can do.

Mayor Eric Adams speaks at a demonstration of Evolv’s weapons detection scanner in the Fulton Street Subway Station on March 28, 2024.

Mayor Eric Adams speaks at a demonstration of Evolv’s weapons detection scanner in the Fulton Street Subway Station on March 28, 2024. Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Since the earliest weeks of his administration, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has expressed interest in exploring new technology that can detect guns. In the aftermath of a mass shooting on the subway in April 2022, he teased the piloting of gun detection technology in the transit system.

Last week, Adams and the city took the first concrete step in that direction, announcing plans to pilot that kind of weapons detection technology in the transit system. The announcement was accompanied by a demonstration at Fulton Street Station of a weapons detection system made by Evolv. The Massachusetts-based company – which counts hospitals, school districts, and major sports and entertainment venues like Citi Field as customers – makes devices that look like walk-through metal detectors, but which the company describes as using “advanced sensor technology and artificial intelligence” to detect concealed weapons, distinguishing them from other objects.

If New York City contracts with Evolv to deploy its weapon screening system in the subway – which a spokesperson for City Hall insisted is still an if despite Adams referring to “partnering with” the company and demonstrating its technology on Thursday – the contract would be another huge get for the company. 

But the demonstration of its technology in the subway this week isn’t the only reason why Evolv has been garnering attention recently. Over the last year, Evolv has come under increased scrutiny from federal regulators, and the company currently faces multiple lawsuits alleging that it has misled the public, customers and investors about what its technology is actually capable of.

Investigations and lawsuits

Last week, a class action lawsuit was filed against Evolv on behalf of its investors, alleging that the company made false and misleading statements about the capabilities of its technology, leading to drops in stock prices when reports about allegedly misleading statements and news of investigations came out.

In February, Evolv disclosed in a press release that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notified the company that they were initiating an investigation that was described as “a non-public, fact finding inquiry,” according to the press release. The SEC declined to comment on the investigation, or the nature of what they’re looking at.

That follows a disclosure from Evolv to investors last October that the Federal Trade Commission had reached out asking for information about “certain aspects of its marketing practices.” Bloomberg reported at the time that the FTC investigation concerned whether Evolv’s artificial intelligence system works as the company has said that it does. The FTC similarly declined to comment on the investigation, or the nature of what they’re looking at. 

Evolv is also facing a lawsuit here in New York. In October 2022, a student at a high school in the Utica City School District was stabbed by another student. NY1 reported that an investigation completed by the school district found that the student had passed through an Evolv system with the knife and went undetected. According to that report, Evolv told the superintendent at the time that the company had been clear about what weapons its system could detect, but the superintendent said there was confusion among school officials about what Evolv had said their technology could do. Representatives for the school district did not respond to a request for comment from City & State.

When asked by NY1 if their system detects knives, Evolv reportedly said that it doesn't discuss the specific capabilities of its systems with the public. When asked by City & State, Evolv did not comment on what its system is able to detect.

The incident in Utica resulted in the school district replacing Evolv’s technology at the high school where the student was stabbed, though not at other schools in the district. In November, the injured student sued Evolv for damages, alleging that Evolv marketed its product to the school as being able to detect knives and other dangerous weapons, and that the company’s marketing claimed that the tool is able to scan for “all the guns, all the bombs and all the large tactical knives.” 

In addition to Evolv, the student’s suit names the city of Utica, Utica City School District and a third-party contractor called Day Automation Systems. The suit includes allegations of negligence, strict products liability, breach of express and implied warranties, failure to warn, deceptive marketing practices and false representations. “The city had no involvement with the Evolv system and as such the city does not see any basis for the lawsuit against it,” Zachary Oren, first assistant corporation counsel for the city of Utica, said in a statement.

When reached for comment, Evolv declined to say much about the substance of these lawsuits or elaborate on the investigations. Of the federal inquiries, spokesperson Alexandra Ozerkis wrote in an email that the company is “happy to cooperate with all regulators who inquire about our products.” 

Asked about the Utica student’s lawsuit, Ozerkis said that the company’s system is still being used by other schools in the district. NY1 reported last year that Evolv’s technology was still in use in elementary schools and junior high schools in the district. The Utica City School District did not respond to questions about Evolv and whether the company’s technology remains in use.

Ozerkis did not provide a comment specifically on the class action. 

Does Evolv’s tech really work?

Though it’s not clear exactly what the FTC and SEC investigations into Evolv are looking at, the lawsuits draw heavily from previous reports that question the technology’s effectiveness and Evolv’s marketing. Several news outlets have done deep dives into those concerns, noting reports of the technology triggering false alarms for everyday items like Chromebooks, and failing to detect actual weapons. 

Much of the research into Evolv’s capabilities and marketing practices has been done by IPVM, an independent security and surveillance industry research group and trade publication. The BBC reported in 2022 that Evolv’s scanners may fail to detect certain kinds of knives, and some bombs and their components. That report cited documents obtained by IPVM which detail the results of tests of Evolv’s system conducted by a third party,  the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security, also known as “NCS4.” A private, unpublished version of the NCS4 report obtained by IPVM showed that the machine was incapable of detecting all knives, showing an overall hit rate of just 58% in 24 walk-throughs with different kinds of knives. Those details weren’t disclosed in the public version of the report publicized by Evolv. 

“Evolv participated in the NCS4 Operational Exercise in 2021 and followed the same protocol all vendors are required to follow and reference. Since then, Evolv has released over four software upgrades to its system and continues to release upgrades,” Ozerkis, the Evolv spokesperson, said in a statement. “Contrary to misleading claims, although Evolv provided feedback to NCS4 on the draft report, Evolv did not change any results of the third-party NCS4 report nor did Evolv have the authority or ability to compel NCS4 to alter its findings. In addition, all customers and serious prospective customers are offered full access to the complete NCS4 testing report upon request.”

Last month, IPVM published a new report that cited a presentation by an Evolv sales manager detailing a variety of different kinds of weapons the scanners can miss when set at different sensitivity settings.

Asked for comment on that report, Ozerkis said that IPVM’s research was biased and misleading, and doesn’t reflect subject matter expertise. The spokesperson said that the report on their technology failing to detect certain weapons makes false assertions, but she didn’t elaborate on what those false assertions were. In a statement, Evolv noted that other kinds of security technology also use sensitivity settings. “Security screening systems, including traditional metal detectors, have sensitivity settings and security professionals, whether responsible for a stadium, airport, courthouse, school or hospital, typically determine how to utilize those settings to achieve their security and operational objectives,” the statement said, adding that Evolv’s customers rely on real-world performance metrics and information from other users when deciding how to use the technology. 

Evolv has addressed IPVM’s reports before with similar criticisms, and has published press releases that claim to correct misinformation about the company, one assertion at a time. Included in one of those press releases is what appears to be the most recent summary Evolv has offered about what its weapons detection system can detect: “Evolv Express was specifically designed to detect guns but will also alert on many types of knives and some explosives.” 

Evolv did not elaborate when asked by City & State about the actual capabilities of its scanners and what they’re able to detect. “Evolv stands behind our technology and is proud to partner with hundreds of security professionals to add a layer of advanced technology to their safety plan,” the company’s statement to City & State read. “Evolv’s customers rely on real-world performance metrics, testimonials from fellow security professionals, experience from other users in their respective industries, and often their own testing of Evolv Express, to guide their purchase decisions.”

Evolv has previously claimed that IPVM’s critical reports on its technology could pose a threat to public safety by enabling bad actors to gain intimate knowledge of their technology. That’s similar to statements that NYPD officials have made when challenged on their transparency about their use of different surveillance technologies.

“We don’t believe in security through obscurity,” Conor Healy, IPVM’s government research director, told City & State. “The trend in security is that transparency makes it better. Evolv obviously disagrees with that.”

Evolv and the city

The growing scrutiny that Evolv faces has raised alarms for some about its potential deployment in New York City subways. 

City Council Member Jennifer Gutiérrez, who chairs the Committee on Technology, referenced the scrutiny that Evolv is under and the class action suit in her response to Thursday’s announcement of the weapons detection pilot program. “We can and should be leveraging emerging technology to make our city a better place, but any technology in the city must be rolled out in a manner that engenders public trust,” Gutiérrez said in a statement.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, was less equivocal. “Why is New York thinking about doing business with this sort of scandal-plagued company?” he said in a statement. “A quick google search would have shown the mayor that Evolv is already under federal investigation and being sued by its own shareholders for fraud.”

Jerome Greco, supervising attorney of the Digital Forensics Unit at The Legal Aid Society, raised concern about gun detection systems more broadly. “Simply put, gun detection systems are flawed and frequently trigger false alarms, which induces panic and creates situations that could result in the loss of life,” Greco said in a statement. “Contrary to the mayor’s claims, New York City should not serve as a testing ground for surveillance corporations; the public has not consented to be a part of these experiments.”

The precise nature of Evolv’s relationship with the city is unclear. On Thursday, Adams said that the city was “partnering with” Evolv and demonstrated the company’s Evolv Express system to the media at the Fulton Street Station. But when later asked about the company, City Hall told City & State that there are no confirmed plans to deploy Evolv’s technology in the city’s subway stations.

“To be clear, we have NOT said we are putting Evolv technology in the subway systems,” City Hall deputy press secretary Kayla Mamelak wrote in an email. Mamelak said that Thursday’s announcement was about opening a 90-day waiting period to explore using weapons detection technology in the subway system, and the city has not made a final decision about whether to install the technology or which vendor to use if it does. “We are conducting outreach to several tech companies and the mayor even said yesterday that the point of this presser is to get the word out. We want tech companies to reach out to us as well if they have a product they think could be helpful here.”

Ozerkis, the Evolv spokesperson, said that the NYPD had contacted the company to explore and test using its screening tools in “select locations” around the city. “Given the wide range of potential city environments, the Evolv technical team is working with the NYPD security experts to understand how and where our technology can best be used to align with their security and operations objectives,” the company said in a statement. “We are honored to have the opportunity to continue our mission to make safer experiences for the New York community in collaboration with the city.”

During Thursday’s press conference, Adams and the other public safety officials in attendance were asked directly about concerns over Evolv’s effectiveness. “Here’s what I know about technology. The first version continues to get better, and then competition comes to try to produce a better product,” Adams said. “What we saw, based on our testing, the hit ratio was clearly in the 99% range. But I want to be clear, if they had a 70% ratio, that's 70% better than we have, 70% more we could make our commuters safe.” City Hall and the NYPD did not address questions from City & State about what kind of testing the city has done on the technology and what results it has produced.

Adams also addressed the FTC investigation during Thursday’s press conference. “We are going to make sure, based on our numbers, hit ratio, false hits, we’re going to do our data. People may have had bad experiences with this technology,” he said. “What we’ve witnessed is that it is living up to our expectation and we’re going to do an analysis and determine, hey, is it living up to our expectations? What I’m hearing from my corporations, from my hospitals, from others, is that they’re saying, ‘This is living up to our expectation.’”

As previous reports have noted, there are examples of Evolv’s scanners succeeding at identifying weapons, including in Buffalo, where the system reportedly detected a disassembled ghost gun that a student was attempting to bring inside. 

The city won’t be deploying electromagnetic weapons detection systems anywhere for at least the next three months. Under the city’s police surveillance technology transparency law, the NYPD has to release impact and use policies on new types of surveillance technology before deploying them. A new draft use policy for electromagnetic weapons detection systems was published on Thursday, triggering a 45-day comment period, and then another 45-day period for the NYPD to evaluate and possibly include feedback in a final use policy, at which point the department can finally start using the technology.