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New York Lawsuit Over School Facial Recognition Use Grows

A New York lawsuit targeting the use of facial recognition on students has added two more parents. Last week, legislation was passed to impose a moratorium on the technology in schools until the issue could be studied.

(TNS) — New York Civil Liberties Union has added two more Lockport parents to its lawsuit seeking to overturn a decision by the New York State Education Department that allowed Lockport City School District to activate its facial recognition surveillance system.

In its late June suit filing, the civil liberties union argued that Lockport's system, powered by the Aegis software suite, violates state education privacy laws by making use of student data. The suit contends that the state education department erred in claiming, in a November 2019 letter, that the system doesn't use student data.

State education and Lockport school district officials have indicated that students are not eligible to be included in the system's database of unwanted persons, which means no student data is being used. NYCLU disagrees, arguing that student data is used to verify when someone is not in the database.

Jim Shultz and newly elected school Trustee Renee Cheatham are the two Lockport parents originally named as plaintiffs in NYCLU's suit. Now they're joined by district residents Steven Allore and Teria Young, both of whom ran for seats on the school board in the June election.

"Teria Young and Steven Allore are parents and members of the Lockport community and understand well the stakes and risks of allowing a racially-biased, flawed system like Aegis to remain in schools. We think their voices are important and we're glad to represent them," said Beth Haroules, senior staff attorney for NYCLU.

Last week, the New York State Legislature passed legislation to impose a moratorium on facial recognition surveillance in schools while the state education department further studies the issue. The legislation, which is awaiting Governor Andrew M. Cuomo's signature or veto, would force Lockport's system to be turned off.

Unless the legislation is signed, Haroules pointed out, Lockport's surveillance technology will remain activated.

"Our immediate concern about facial recognition in New York schools is to make sure students in Lockport aren't exposed to this kind of surveillance for even a day longer," she said. "But more broadly, we want to be sure no other schools that are baited into the false promise of flawed facial recognition technology don't have the green light from NYSED to move forward. NYSED’s problematic determination about student data that led to Lockport turning its system on remains in place. Our legal challenge seeks to remedy to this and revoke its approval."

The school district was officially granted intervenor status last week and was added to the lawsuit, which originally named only the state education department.

In legal filings, the district's attorneys Jeffrey Swiatek and Charles Malcomb, both with the Hodgson Russ law firm, contend that student data is not used by the system because it does not retain biometric measures.

"The AEGIS System takes biometric measurements of all faces that within the frames of the district's security cameras ... such measurements are not associated with a particular individual, but are anonymously compared against the AEGIS System database of non-student individuals who are determined, pursuant to district policy, to present an immediate or potential threat to the safety of the school community," Swiatek and Malcomb wrote.

The attorneys further argue that none of the biometric information is recorded or preserved in any way.

"If the AEGIS System's analysis of security camera images matches an individual visible in a security camera frame with a non-student individual in the database, the biometric data is not retained, but the photographic image from the security is presented, along with the location(s) where the person was observed with a data and time stamp, to appropriate District officials for verification," they wrote.

The school district's attorneys suggested the state education department does not have the authority, under state education law dealing with student data and privacy, to prevent the district from using the system.

The state education department is being represented by the New York State Attorney General's office in the case.

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.

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