Liberties Union Sues New York Schools over Facial Recognition

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which has consistently opposed the system since it was first proposed, sued the Education Department in State Supreme Court in an effort to overturn the approval for the system.

by Thomas J. Prohaska, The Buffalo News / June 23, 2020
Shutterstock/greenbutterfly

(TNS) — The controversial facial recognition security system in Lockport schools was illegally approved by the state Education Department, a lawsuit filed Monday in Albany alleged.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which has consistently opposed the system since it was first proposed, sued the Education Department in State Supreme Court, on behalf of two Lockport parents, one of whom was elected to the Board of Education last week, in an effort to overturn the approval for the system.

The NYCLU lawsuit contends the system still violates state student privacy laws, despite changes in district policy dictated by Albany.

That's because the system still scans the faces of everyone who enters a Lockport school to see if they match a list of banned persons, including registered sex offenders. The images are stored in the system's software for 60 days.

The plaintiffs in the case are Jim Shultz, whose daughter attends Lockport High School, and Renee Cheatham, who led the field of 11 Board of Education candidates last week. The school district itself is not a defendant.

The district calls the system Aegis, after the brand name of the software sold by SN Technologies, a Canadian company.

The project also included the installation of 300 digital cameras in Lockport schools to feed images to the system, which depends on scanning from multiple angles to obtain the best results.

Most of the equipment was installed in the summer of 2018, but the Education Department for many months wouldn't let Lockport test the system because of its concerns over student privacy.

Last November, the Education Department greenlighted the plan as long as the Board of Education passed a set of policy changes that the state dictated. The board did so in January, a few days after the system was switched on Jan. 2.

Research projects in the United States and abroad have shown that although the technology is steadily improving, facial recognition systems are prone to false positives and still tend to work best on the faces of adult white males. In general, their software doesn't perform as well when it scans the faces of women, children or people of color.

“Both Lockport and NYSED knew that face surveillance software is racially biased against people of color, and they apparently decided that was an acceptable price to pay in order to install an experimental security system,” said Cheatham, who is African American.

“Given that Lockport already has a history of disproportionately punishing black children, this cannot be allowed to go forward. Any technology equipment purchased by the district should always be used for the education of our children. We need to always put them first," Cheatham said.

“NYSED’s approval of this technology demonstrated a dangerous lack of oversight and an alarming misunderstanding of the way it analyzes student data,” said Stefanie D. Coyle, deputy director of the NYCLU's Education Policy Center.

“It’s NYSED’s responsibility to protect students and provide expert-level oversight statewide, and it abdicated that responsibility with this decision. Facial recognition surveillance is intrusive, biased, and inaccurate, and it has no place in schools," Coyle said.

An Education Department spokeswoman said the department won't comment on pending litigation.

Besides the privacy concerns, Shultz concluded the system is basically useless in trying to prevent a school shooting or other major attack.

"The premise of the system is foolish," he said. "It does absolutely nothing unless you can predict in advance who a school shooter will be, put their picture in the database and that the cameras manage to capture their image because they didn't put a mask on," Shultz said. "I've been saying for two years, it doesn't work if you have a mask on, and now everybody's seeing what that means."

The Lockport system is designed to flash a warning to a short list of Lockport school personnel when the cameras spot someone whose photo is programmed into the software.

The district's policy says those include Level 2 or 3 registered sex offenders, staff members on suspension or administrative leave, anyone barred from school property by a court order and "anyone believed to pose a threat based on credible information presented to the district."

"Following the verification by a person reviewing the image in the alert, the alert is forwarded to law enforcement via the alert system," the policy says. The district hired Douglas E. Haak, a former acting Lockport police chief, as one of the reviewers.

"Even if it works and the police get an alert, it's not like they're suddenly going to appear and deal with it," Shultz said. "Having an extra five or 10 minutes or whatever it's going to be, by then you don't need an alarm. The alarm is all the screaming."

The Education Department so far has reimbursed Lockport for nearly $2.87 million of its costs relating to the security system, said Deborah Coder, assistant superintendent for finance and management. Coder said Lockport has filed a request for another $1.1 million.

The NYCLU said the lawsuit does not seek to take back the state's reimbursements to Lockport.

"Both Lockport and NYSED made significant mistakes here, but the students should not be the ones to bear the brunt of that bad decision-making," NYCLU senior staff attorney Beth Haroules said.

Last week, the NYCLU sued the Education Department over its denial of a Freedom of Information Law request about the approval process for Lockport's system.

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

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