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New York to Bar Facial Recognition Tech in Schools

The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Monica P. Wallace, would require the Lockport City School District to turn off the 300 digital cameras it installed to feed images to facial recognition software in its buildings.

by Thomas J. Prohaska, The Buffalo News / December 23, 2020
Shutterstock/Scharfsinn

(TNS) — The use of facial recognition security systems in New York schools is now illegal, after Gov.  Andrew M. Cuomo  signed a temporary ban on their use Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman  Monica P. Wallace , D- Cheektowaga, would require the Lockport City School District to turn off the 300 digital cameras it installed to feed images to facial recognition software in its buildings.

The district won state Education Department approval for the system late last year and activated it Jan. 2.

The new law temporarily blocks the use of what it calls "biometric identifying technology" in all schools — public, nonpublic and charter.

In the meantime, the law orders the Education Department to conduct a detailed study on the appropriateness of the systems and how civil liberties can be protected while using them.

The law prohibits the department from approving any such system until July 1, 2022, or when the report is complete, whichever is later. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, which opposes facial recognition security systems in schools, they have been approved in 11 other districts.

Wallace said she has doubts about the technology's accuracy, cost and effectiveness, as well as questions about the privacy of the scanned images and who would have access to them.

"I'm happy to see the governor agreed with my concerns," Wallace said.

"Facial recognition technology could provide a host of benefits to New Yorkers, but its use brings up serious and legitimate privacy concerns that we have to examine, especially in schools," Cuomo said in a news release.

The study will address the use of the scanned images and the technology's impact on privacy and civil liberties, as well as recommending rules for its use — if it is allowed at all.

"This legislation requires state education policymakers to take a step back, consult with experts and address privacy issues before determining whether any kind of biometric identifying technology can be brought into New York's schools. The safety and security of our children is vital to every parent, and whether to use this technology is not a decision to be made lightly," Cuomo said.

"There is a need for a deeper dive," Wallace said.

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.

"It's a shame that Lockport had to waste $2.7 million on this and it took a piece of state legislation to stop it," said  Jim Shultz , one of four Lockport parents who sued the Education Department, with the backing of the NYCLU, contending the state approval of the system was illegal.

"The premise that you can identify a school shooter in advance, in real time, is just mythological," Shultz said. "And it's just an incredibly expensive system to use on students."

Studies around the world have shown that facial recognition software is most likely to match a live image to a stored photo when the subject is an adult white man. Although a federal study last year concluded the algorithm in Lockport's system works properly more than 99% of the time, the report said false matches are most likely to occur when women or Black people are being scanned.

Lockport used money from the state's Smart Schools Bond Act to reimburse its purchase of the Aegis system from SN Technologies, an Ontario company.

Lockport Superintendent  Michelle T. Bradley  did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday, but in July, when the Legislature passed the bill, she blasted it.

"The legislative effort would result in over $1 million of taxpayer money being committed to an approved system that cannot be used to protect the district community from sex offenders and others who present a threat," Bradley said then. "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."

(c)2020 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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