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We asked for answers on facial recognition in schools. Our questions remain

facial recognition blog2
By: Stefanie Coyle Deputy Director, Education Policy Center

As parents, defenders of civil liberties and privacy advocates, we were worried when we first heard that a school district in upstate New York was planning to install facial recognition software in its schools.

Schools should be safe places for students to learn, not spaces where they are constantly surveilled. The faces of our children, parents and teachers should not be continually scanned and uploaded to a database, especially not one that may be shared with law enforcement agencies including ICE for enforcement purposes. Facial recognition software is notoriously inaccurate, and is particularly bad at identifying women, children and people of color.

Bringing this invasive technology into the classroom opens up the possibility that innocent students will be misidentified and punished for things they did not do. It could turn our school environment from one of learning and exploration into one of suspicion and control.

On June 18, we sent a letter to the Lockport School District and New York State Department of Education expressing our concerns and asking for documents relating to the process and policies surrounding the use of facial recognition technology in schools.

The hundreds of documents and emails we received through the records request did little to allay our concerns. The decision to implement this technology using funding from the Smart Schools Bond Act appears to have been made without sufficient public involvement as required by law. There are also no regulations in place to account for the serious inaccuracy of this technology, which is most likely to misidentify people of color. And there is no policy in place to limit who will have access to the data collected from the cameras that scan the faces of thousands of parents, teachers and children every day.

What we found:

  • Lack of Community Input: The Smart Schools Bond Act, which provides funding for technology in schools, includes specific requirements for engaging community stakeholders, including children, teachers and parents. Despite certifying to the state that stakeholders were engaged, the documents the Lockport School District provided show they held only one public meeting to introduce the community to the idea of using state money for technology in the classroom to purchase surveillance technology. After the meeting, the school moved forward with an application to acquire the facial recognition software.That meeting was in the middle of a weekday afternoon in August, when many parents are at work or out of town. There were no emails or flyers showing engagement of students and parents in the process of deciding to adopt this technology. In fact, the head of the Lockport Education Association told a reporter they were not consulted.
  • Possible Self-Dealing: From the documents provided to us, it appears that the same security consultant who encouraged the district to utilize facial recognition technology is also benefiting financially. Consultant Tony Olivo made a presentation to the district about the technology and worked with the district to determine that they could use Smart Schools Bond Act funds to purchase it. His company, CSI, appears to hold the licensing agreement for the Aegis software that was installed in Lockport schools. Olivo’s company appears to have been paid part of the multi-million dollar fee that went to Ferguson Electric, which was responsible for installing the system.

What we didn’t find:

  • Any policy that limits who will have access to the data collected by the facial recognition software, or any documentation explaining whether or not law enforcement agencies will have access.
  • Any specific information about how the list of “unwanted persons” that will trigger an alarm when the cameras identify a possible intruder will be created or updated. There was also no confirmation of which law enforcement databases would be used to compile the “unwanted persons” list.
  • No procedures or training materials for staff to explain what will happen when an “unwanted person” is identified by the system or what will happen when the system makes a false identification.
  • Any research or studies on the effectiveness of facial recognition technology consulted by the school board while developing this proposed use of millions of dollars of state funds.

Our outstanding questions:

  • Who will have access to the database? Will it be shared with local law enforcement or federal enforcement authorities like ICE?
  • Who is being added to the “unwanted person” database? How does someone get on that list and how might they get off of it?
  • Will this technology be used to track who students associate with? Will it be used to crack down on minor misbehavior and enforce code of conduct violations, as indicated by one email from a school official?
  • Did Lockport actually comply with the Smart Schools Bond Act process and reach out to students, parents, teachers, and community members about this proposal?

The state department of education has said that they are working with the Lockport School District to develop model policies, but there is still a serious lack of clarity about how the system will be deployed in schools.

Why this matters:

Lockport is one of the first schools in the country to install facial recognition software, and the New York state department of education has said that they view the initiative as a pilot program. Companies are aggressively marketing this technology to schools. One company is even offering this technology to schools for free.

We know that schools are nervous about security, especially in the wake of devastating school shootings last year. But high tech surveillance of our students is not the solution. No database will ever substitute for adults who are supportive and attentive to the needs and feelings of their students.

Facial recognition software has no place in our schools. This technology has serious implications for privacy, for the learning environment, and for our community members.

Editor’s note: While some of the documents we received are posted here, the NYCLU will not be posting the full response to the FOIL request publicly. That is because the documents provided to us were so expansive that they included access information for internal servers, private student files, and passwords for programs and email accounts. The serious lack of familiarity with cyber security displayed in the email correspondence we received and complete absence of common sense redactions of sensitive private information speaks volumes about the district’s lack of preparation to safely store and collect biometric data on the students, parents and teachers who pass through its schools every day.

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