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New York Study of Biometric Tech in Schools Nears Completion

Two years after Lockport City School District's use of facial recognition-capable cameras triggered controversy, a recent hearing gave critics and proponents a chance to speak up while the state prepares a report.

(TNS) — The New York State Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) held a virtual public hearing Thursday on the use of biometric technology in schools. The hearing is part of a study mandated by New York State.

Lockport City School District's use of a facial and object recognition-capable surveillance camera system was disrupted in 2020 when the state legislature approved, and then Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed, a law imposing a moratorium on operation of such systems while the state education department studied the effects. NYSED is due to report on the privacy implications and the risks of false identification based on race, gender or age.

Speakers at the ITS hearing included Lockport resident Jim Shultz, a persistent critic of the school district's decision to acquire and operate the camera system, as well as Leonie Haimson, co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Jason Kelley, associate of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Juan Miguel representing New York Civil Liberties Union, and Jake Parker representing the Security Industry Association.

Shultz's testimony was given last, directly after Parker's testimony, and the contrast was striking.

Parker said the technology's purpose is not to track students, it's to screen visitors to school buildings and warn security personnel when a barred person attempts to enter a building.

"Every district must do this whether or not they're assisted by technology," Parker said. "This can be as simple as posting photos of these individuals in the front office. As you can imagine, that's not very effective."

Shultz honed in on the shortcomings of the technology and suggested it provides a false sense of security.

"Somehow the school officials were going to predict, in advance, who the school shooter was going to be, put them in that system in the database, and if they got anywhere near the school and were stupid enough not to wear a mask, then we would somehow get a real-time alert and use that to prevent the shooting," Shultz said. "Nobody knows in advance who the school shooters are going to be. And once they're there on the school campus, the only alarm you're going to need is the screaming and the shooting."

Schulz also noted that the system placed in Lockport was credited with having "gun recognition capacity," but testing showed it identified a broom as a gun. The company that sold the technology to the district has since advised it to ignore the gun warnings, he testified.

"Any one of those false warnings, false warnings being that if a student of color that got misidentified, if any of those had gotten through to the Lockport Police Department, the chief of police has said it would be treated as a live-shooter situation and armed police officers would be sent into the school because of a false alarm," Shultz said.

Accuracy concerns were also addressed by NYCLU's representative in the hearing. NYCLU had filed suit against the state education department in June 2020, aiming to get its approval of Lockport's cameras project overturned.

"The Lockport City School District purchased a system where a Black woman is 16 times more likely to be misidentified than a White man," NYCLU's Miguel testified.

Parker, the security industry rep, suggested mass shooters were well-known in their community prior to their spree and that knowledge could be harnessed through the use of biometric technology.

"Any delay in response to such incidents could cost lives," he said.

Parker dismissed student privacy concerns as unfounded. No student data is retained by such security systems, he said.

Haimson, the co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, testified that despite the moratorium, biometric data is still being recorded and distributed by school districts.

"The statewide moratorium on sharing biometric data has been violated by many New York districts ... (they) continue to use third-party apps that collect and share visual information about students," Haimson said.

The state Office of Information Technology Services is tasked with preparing the biometric technology impacts report for NYSED. Michelle Jones, co-host of the Thursday hearing, said comments offered during the public hearing period will be taken into consideration in the final report.

The report "will be submitted to the NYSED commissioner, as well as the legislature and governor, and made publicly available," Jones added.

Public comments may be made via phone, mail, email or online survey on ITS's website ( through 5 p.m. Oct. 28.

©2022 the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Lockport, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.