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NY is Ignoring the Ban on Facial Recognition in Schools

State officials are disregarding the law and putting students in danger.

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By: Juan Miguel Program Associate, Education Policy Center & Daniel Schwarz Senior Privacy & Technology Strategist, Policy

To protect students, New York State adopted a law in 2020 placing a moratorium on the use of invasive, biased, privacy-destroying biometric surveillance in schools. The moratorium cannot be lifted until the New York State Education Department (NYSED) issues a report on the risks and benefits of this technology in schools and the Commissioner of Education authorizes its use.

Despite this ban, the NYCLU has uncovered evidence that New York officials — including NYSED  — are ignoring the law by approving grant applications for schools to purchase biometric surveillance technologies, including facial recognition.

The problems with biometric technology and facial recognition are many. Facial recognition is notoriously inaccurate. The technology commonly misidentifies people of color, women, and children.

Facial recognition cameras work by comparing images to a database of photographs – often mugshots. Because these databases often include disproportionate numbers of young men of color, this can help contribute to high misidentification rates and racial bias. This creates a risk that students of color — who are already more likely to be targeted by law enforcement and to face school discipline — will be falsely identified.

Biometric technologies can trace a student’s every move with no context. This makes it likely ordinary activities like hanging out with friends will be mistaken for potential “evidence” of a crime. There’s also the risk that the information gathered by biometric tech could be turned over to law enforcement or immigration authorities. And if the highly sensitive information is hacked and stolen, the damage done could be permanent since people can’t change their face, fingerprints, or other biometric characteristics.

NYSED must step in to protect kids and to help districts steer clear of tech that puts them in danger.

The moratorium became necessary because vendors were preying on educators’ fears and exploiting their ignorance about the technology. The NYCLU was the first to reveal that the Lockport City School District in Western New York used state funding to purchase facial recognition technology to use in its schools. The NYCLU, along with concerned parents and students, sounded alarm bells about this development and eventually sued NYSED and the district to stop the tech from being used.

In defiance of both the demonstrated risks of biometric technology and state law, New York’s Smart Schools Review Board has since approved numerous grant proposals for technologies that include biometric surveillance.

In the last two years, the Review Board approved at least sixteen proposals that include camera, software, and analytics products from a vendor called Avigilon, including its systems known as Avigilon Control Center (“ACC”) 6 and ACC 7. ACC 7 explicitly includes “facial recognition technology” to “identify[] people of interest based on secure watch list(s).” ACC 6 includes “Appearance Search” which is described as “a sophisticated deep learning AI search engine for video” that uses “face analytics” including “the unique characteristics of a person’s face… to understand that it is searching for the same person, even if items such as their clothing change over time.”

More recently, two school districts received approval for the funding of surveillance systems by Verkada. A sales video for “school safety” touts the technology’s “appearance search”, “face detection”, and “face search”. Notably, these features — which the company calls “People Analytics” — are turned off by default in some jurisdictions like Illinois and Texas, but not in New York.

Verkada gained notoriety for harassing female employees via its own facial recognition tools and for a massive data breach giving hackers access to 150,000 live camera feeds and customer data. The breach revealed that facial recognition features may have been turned on without customers’ knowledge.

In the past, both Verkada and Avigilon have misleadingly claimed their tools are not facial recognition – often directly contradicting their own sales materials. But regardless, the language in New York’s moratorium is broad enough to prohibit their tools.

NYSED has just begun to take steps towards producing the report on biometric tech that the law requires. It’s critical that this report reflects the technology’s well-documented and serious potential harms. Biometric surveillance should never be utilized on kids in school. Schools and districts have an obligation to protect student privacy and ensure that schools are welcoming places for all children to learn and thrive, not places of constant, discriminatory, and invasive surveillance.

We all want safe schools and it can be tempting to reach for technology like facial recognition as a quick fix. District personnel, especially, are under enormous pressure to be sure they’re doing everything they can to keep kids safe. But this technology has never proven to be an effective way to make schools safe, and vendors take advantage of legitimate fears to line their pockets with tax dollars. NYSED must step in to protect kids and to help districts steer clear of tech that puts them in danger.

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