NEW YORK- The New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter today urging the New York State Education Department to ensure that school districts across the state do not implement invasive and inaccurate facial recognition technology. The letter asks NYSED to review its decision to approve funds requested by the Lockport School District for a facial recognition system that is slated to be installed next school year. The NYCLU also sent a Freedom of Information Law request to the Lockport City School District asking for details on how and where the technology will be used, and who will have access to the sensitive data that gets collected.
“Schools should be safe places for students to learn, not spaces where they are constantly surveilled,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “Lockport is sending the message that it views students as potential criminals who must have their faces scanned wherever they go. This will have a chilling effect on school climate throughout the district and sow distrust between students and school officials.”
Lockport School District spent almost $4 million to acquire the facial recognition system, using state money allocated for schools meant to upgrade or improve their infrastructure and technology. Most schools spent the money on things like wi-fi, new computers or 3D printers.
Lockport made the multimillion dollar purchase despite the fact that the district could face a budget shortfall of nearly $1 million. The district has said if it doesn’t receive additional state aid, it plans to cut transportation and sports programs, reduce kindergarten to half days and close elementary school libraries.
Beyond the expense, these surveillance systems also pose serious privacy and safety risks. In the system Lockport purchased, once a person’s facial image is captured by the technology and uploaded, the system can go back and track that person’s movements around the school over the previous 60 days.
This has the potential to turn every step a student takes into evidence of a crime. The district apparently plans to install cameras all over schools including in classroomsYouthful misbehavior or talking with friends could be criminalized. Further, students seeking confidential assistance from a counselor or school clinic will be caught and catalogued in the system. And the technology is also notoriously inaccurate, especially when it comes to identifying women, young people and people of color. This means that innocent students are likely to be misidentified and punished for things they did not do.
Lockport apparently plans to implement facial recognition into all its public schools, which means students as young as 4 or 5 could have their movements tracked and their faces uploaded into the district’s database.
The NYCLU’s FOIL request seeks information on who will have access to the database. It is unclear who from the district, the individual schools, the for-profit software vendor SN Technologies, or local police will have access. It is also possible that federal or state agencies will have access as well. Lockport indicated in its proposal that it wanted state funds for “interfaces to local state and federal crime databases.” These databases could include those used for immigration enforcement.
“Parents of immigrant students could be scared to send their children to school for fear that they or their children could end up on ICE’s radar,” said Stefanie Coyle, NYCLU education counsel. “All students in New York State have a right to an education regardless of immigration status, but that right is put in danger if families are scared to go to school.”
The FOIL request also seeks information on how long images and data produced by the technology will be kept, what types of information are generated and stored by the system and details on where cameras will be installed.
The NYCLU is concerned that other districts could follow in Lockport’s footsteps. The Depew Superintendent told the Buffalo News last month that his district has a funding request pending with NYSED for the same technology that Lockport is installing. He also said the cameras could be used to police violations of the school code of conduct, which might mean facial recognition would be used to crack down on minor infractions.
The NYCLU’s letter asks the Education Department and its Chief Privacy Officer to re-visit Lockport’s application requesting state funds for the technology and to make clear that this technology does not belong in schools. The letter also argues that, going forward, all applications for surveillance technology by schools should be reviewed by the Chief Privacy Officer and that parents, teachers and students must be given adequate opportunity to weigh in.
“Too many schools in Western New York and across the state are already over-policed and under-resourced,” said John Curr III, NYCLU Western Regional Office director. “This plan makes things worse and risks exposing data collected about students and educators to misuse by outsiders or law enforcement."