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Keep facial recognition technology out of New York’s schools

By: Stefanie Coyle Deputy Director, Education Policy Center

Since 2018, parents, students and organizations like mine, the New York Civil Liberties Union, have sounded the alarm about the dangers of allowing error-prone, racially biased facial recognition technology in schools. Now the state Office of Information Technology Services has issued a report validating what we’ve said all along.

The report, issued in August, concludes that “the risks of the use of [facial recognition technology] in an educational setting may outweigh the benefits.” It is now up to the state Education Department to decide whether to allow this technology in schools. To protect the privacy and civil rights of New York’s students, the department should ban facial recognition in schools once and for all.

Plenty of research shows how inaccurate facial recognition is, particularly when used to identify young people, women and people of color. These systems constantly scan people’s faces, and they can track children’s movements everywhere they go. This has the potential to turn innocent behavior like hanging out with friends into evidence of wrongdoing or even a crime.

There is also the danger that districts could send the biometric information snatched up by facial recognition technology to law enforcement or immigration authorities, like ICE. Not to mention the risk that this sensitive stored biometric information could be stolen by hackers.

Those who are in favor of unleashing this technology on our children often raise the specter of horrific events like school shootings. But as the new report correctly notes, “Many claims have been made about the potential of [facial recognition technology] security systems to make schools safer, but little information is available about real-life situations where technology detected and helped prevent violent incidents.” These systems also often set off false alarms by, for example, repeatedly misidentifying custodial brooms as long guns.

The report goes on to point out, “Regardless of the type of technology used, a school’s staff must have some type of forewarning that an individual should not be allowed access to a school for any technology to be effective.” The NYCLU first became aware of the use of facial recognition in New York schools five years ago when a concerned parent informed us that the Lockport City School District had acquired the technology. Lockport decided to buy facial recognition cameras after very little public input using state funds that should have been used for things like laptops or other technology to enhance student learning.

In 2020, the Education Department allowed Lockport to turn on its cameras, subjecting children as young as 5 years old to this invasive technology, and prompting the NYCLU to sue the department. But then that same year, state lawmakers passed a bill that put a moratorium on the use of facial recognition and other biometric technology in schools.

The law banned biometric technology on public school campuses until a report weighing its costs and benefits could be issued. That report is now out, and the results are conclusive: Facial recognition carries several risks and has unproven benefits.

New York students’ privacy rights are now in the hands of the state Education Department, which will make the final decision.

State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa can either side with shady tech companies eager to make a buck by opening the floodgates and putting New York youngsters’ sensitive information in danger, or she can decide that our children’s safety is too important to risk on ineffective, racist technology.

The rest of the country could follow our lead. Commissioner Rosa should make clear that facial recognition has no place in the classroom.

This piece was orginally published in the Times Union.

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