Privacy & Security

N.Y. District Will Use Facial Recognition Software, Despite Big Privacy Concerns

By Alyson Klein — January 03, 2020 2 min read
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A New York school district has announced it will begin using controversial facial recognition software for school safety purposes, over the strenuous objections of civil liberties advocates.

Beginning this month, the Lockport School District, near the Canadian border, will become one of the first school systems in the country to try out facial recognition software. The district will use Aegis software, created by a Canadian-based company, to alert district officials if someone on a flagged list of individuals showed up at one of the district’s eight schools. The software can also detect ten different types of guns.

The district’s path to using the software wasn’t a smooth one. In fact, earlier this year, the New York State Education Department required Lockport to hit the pause button on the implementation of the system. The state relented when Lockport revised its policy to make it clear that no student data will be created or stored in its data security system, an NYSED official said. And the state recommended that the district consult with its local attorney to ensure that all other applicable laws and regulations are met and that the civil rights of all individuals are also protected.

The district makes this distinction clear in a message to parents on its website.

The system identifies individuals only if they are stored in a database in an identified category which include sex offenders, staff who have been suspended and/or are on administrative leave, anyone prohibited from entry to district property by court order ... or anyone believed to pose a threat based on credible information presented to the district by Law enforcement or will be reported to law enforcement by the district. AEGIS will not include students in any category for any reason, in compliance with a request made by the New York State Education Department."

The message also explained the district’s argument for installing the system, saying it will function as an “additional security measure in all buildings.”

However, that does not assure the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has written a letter to the state asking that it rescind its approval of the system.

“NYSED should not allow Lockport’s students, teachers, and community members to be test subjects for inaccurate and invasive technology,” the organization wrote. And in a blog post, the Civil Liberties Union argued that, “children as young as 5-years-old will have their faces scanned wherever they go. Their images will be captured by a system that is error-prone, discriminatory, and puts students’ safety at risk.”

NYCLU officials don’t buy the district’s reassurance that the technology won’t store student data. That’s not how facial scanning technology works, they argue. They say it will be stored for at least 60 days, so that it can be compared to faces the district has asked the technology to flag. And during that time, the student facial data could be hacked, NYCLU officials argue. What’s more, they say, facial recognition software has difficulty recognizing women, people of color, and young people—which makes it particularly problematic in a K-12 school environment.

In fact, the city of San Francisco recently banned the use of the technology.

The NYCLU’s blog post urges readers to support a bill that will be introduced in the next state legislative session, which would ban the use of the technology in schools.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.