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New York Senate Passes Facial Recognition Moratorium

The legislation temporarily bans facial recognition in state schools and requires the state Education Department to study the issue and craft regulations. Opponents of the technology have criticized its use in schools.

by Connor Hoffman, Lockport Union-Sun & Journal / July 23, 2020
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(TNS) — A moratorium on facial recognition in education may soon become a reality, as both chambers of the state legislature now have passed bills mandating a temporary ban, with the state senate passing the bill on Wednesday after the assembly passed its own bill on Tuesday.

The bills sponsored by Assembly Member Monica Wallace and State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, both Democrats, await Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's signature.

“We will review any bill that passes both houses of the legislature," Jason Conwall, a Cuomo spokesperson said on Tuesday.

The legislation will temporarily ban facial recognition in state schools and require the New York State Education Department to study the issue and craft regulations. This comes a month after the New York Civil Liberties Union launched a lawsuit to force the state education department to turn off Lockport's system.

Both legislators have told the newspaper that the moratorium applies to Lockport's system, which was the first in the state, to use such technology.

Superintendent Michelle Bradley released a statement on Wednesday afternoon after the bill's passage saying the district is "profoundly disappointed at the legislative effort to prohibit the operation of the district's Aegis system."

The Lockport superintendent pointed out in the statement that the system has been approved on two occasions by New York state and the New York State Department of Education has "confirmed that the district's thoughtful implementation of the AEGIS system has addressed student data privacy concerns."

"Contrary to the constant misrepresentations by opponents of the AEGIS System, the AEGIS System does not in any way record or retain biometric information relating to students or any other individuals on District grounds," Bradley wrote.

Bradley observed that the system has been operated in a manner consistent with district policy since Jan. 2, 2020.

She concluded the statement by saying 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."

"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. This is especially so given the security implications of State recommendations on school reopening such as keeping doors and windows open to increase ventilation, and temperature screening of all people before entering the building leading to the utilization of multiple entrances," Bradley added.

Stefanie Coyle, the deputy director of the Education Policy Center, celebrated the passage on Wednesday afternoon.

"We’ve said for years that facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technologies have no place in schools, and this is a monumental leap forward to protect students from this kind of invasive surveillance. Schools should be an environment where children can learn and grow, and the presence of a flawed and racially-biased system constantly monitoring students makes that impossible," Coyle said.

"This is especially important as schools across the state begin to acknowledge the experiences of Black and Brown students being policed in schools and funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline. Facial recognition is notoriously inaccurate especially when it comes to identifying women and people of color. For children, whose appearances change rapidly as they grow, biometric technologies’ accuracy is even more questionable. False positives, where the wrong student is identified, can result in traumatic interactions with law enforcement, loss of class time, disciplinary action, and potentially a criminal record."

Coyle reiterated the organization's belief that New York should never have dedicated funds to the technology, and urged the governor to immediately sign the bill.

"We urge Governor Cuomo to sign this bill immediately and as is, to make sure that if students return in person to schools in Lockport in the fall they won’t be exposed to the collection of their student data or the dangers of school surveillance," she said.

Lockport administrators had announced their intentions to begin testing the Aegis system in late May 2019 and were told by the state education department to not use the system while privacy concerns lingered. After months of back and forth with the state, the Lockport school board changed its system use policy and removed students from the list of persons eligible for inclusion in the Aegis database of individuals whose presence on school property would trigger an alert.

NYSED approved of the policy revision and signed off on the district’s use of the system in November. The district activated the system on Jan. 2.

The school district used $1.4 million of the $4.2 million allocated to it through New York’s Smart Schools Bond Act to acquire and install one of the first facial and object recognition security systems in an American school. The system relies on the Aegis software suite created by Canadian-based SN Technologies. The facial recognition software works by using a database of flagged individuals and sending an alert to district personnel when a flagged person is detected on school property. The object recognition feature would reportedly detect 10 types of guns and alert certain district personnel, as well as law enforcement, if a weapon is detected.

©2020 the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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