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December 22, 2020

Legislation Halts Ongoing Student Surveillance in Lockport, NY Schools

ALBANY -- Today Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a moratorium on biometric surveillance tools, including facial recognition, in New York schools. The first-of-its-kind legislation halts the use of a face surveillance system in the Lockport City School District, which was first put into use in January 2020.

“The moratorium on biometric surveillance is a landmark piece of legislation that should serve as a national model to stop the proliferation of faulty, harmful facial recognition technologies in schools,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “For children, whose appearances change rapidly as they grow, and for people of color and women more broadly, the accuracy of biometric technologies is highly questionable. This is especially important as schools across the state begin to acknowledge the experiences of Black and Brown students being policed in schools and funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The law will require the commissioner of education, in consultation with the New York State Education Department’s chief privacy officer, to evaluate the privacy implications of biometric identifying technology and whether the technology differs in accuracy rate depending on the race, national origin, gender, age, or any other factor of those being scanned. The bill also requires feedback from teachers, school administrators, parents, school safety experts, and data privacy experts before the commissioner makes any recommendations about the use of this technology.

In June 2020, the NYCLU sued the New York State Education Department, arguing that the department had violated student data privacy laws by approving Lockport’s system in November 2019.

“New York should never dedicate funding to invasive and biased surveillance technology, and now many more school districts across the state will be blocked from deploying these harmful systems,” said Stefanie Coyle, deputy director for the NYCLU’s Education Policy Center. “There is such an overwhelming need for resources in the classroom and to support remote learning, and we hope this will be a part of a shift toward a model of education that centers students’ needs rather than exposes them to law enforcement and discipline.”

The funding for Lockport’s facial recognition system, and 11 other currently approved projects utilizing biometric surveillance, comes from the Smart Schools Bond Act (SSBA), a law to ensure funding for school technology upgrades. Through the SSBA, the Lockport City School District has already been fully reimbursed for the costs incurred installing their system.

“The Lockport school district made our students guinea pigs in an experiment in high-tech surveillance of all their movements,” said Jim Shultz, plaintiff and Lockport parent. “They wasted $2.7 million in taxpayer dollars doing it.  Of course facial recognition in schools needs to be studied before any other school district – in New York or anywhere else – does this again.”