Privacy & Security

N.Y. Lawmakers Voted to Ban Facial Recognition in Schools. One Superintendent Isn’t Pleased.

By Mark Lieberman — July 24, 2020 2 min read
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New York state lawmakers voted this week to ban facial recognition technology from the state’s schools until at least July 2022. The superintendent of a New York school district that currently uses facial recognition software is not pleased.

The legislation arrives a few weeks after the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state education department’s decision to approve the facial recognition system that has been operating since January at the Lockport school district.

Lockport Superintendent Michelle Bradley criticized the legislation in an email to the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. “The district does not believe that there is any valid basis on which it should be prevented from utilizing this available, approved and operating technology to enhance the safety and security of the district’s students, staff and visitors, and to respond to real world threats,” she wrote.

Facial recognition technology has been widely criticized for perpetuating racial bias and putting students’ privacy at risk. A sweeping study published last year found that facial recognition software misidentifies women and people of color far more frequently than it does white men.

The Association of Computer Machinery, which represents more than 100 computing professionals worldwide, has called for all existing facial recognition systems to be deactivated until they can meet stricter accountability standards.

Proponents say the technology can be a valuable tool for addressing security concerns, which have been heightened in recent years after a spate of school shootings. At least one school district is planning to use facial recognition software to assist with temperature checks when school buildings reopen later this year.

The New York bill would also require the state education department to commission a study of facial recognition tools and their potential pitfalls.

The bill was first introduced in the New York State Assembly last summer, but didn’t come up for a vote in the state Senate. A few weeks ago, when lawmakers picked up where they left off, they confronted new circumstances: a pandemic that has crunched state budgets, and a nationwide reckoning of systemic racism.

“The idea that we’d spend millions of dollars on a technology that’s potentially racially biased, that is expensive, that we don’t know that much about, and that has potential implications that we might not like, raised awareness in a way over the past year that maybe wasn’t there last year,” Monica Wallace, the New York state assembly member who co-introduced the bill, told Education Week.

Bradley told the Buffalo News requirements for schools to keep doors and windows open this school year to help mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 will present additional security risks. Students and teachers’ face masks won’t make the technology less effective, she said, because the software’s database only includes individuals outside the school community who have been deemed a threat, like local sex offenders.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is currently reviewing the bill, a spokesperson confirmed to Education Week. He has 10 days to veto the bill before it becomes law. If he does veto it, lawmakers can overturn the veto with a two-thirds majority.

Image: E+/Getty

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