Update: On Thursday, the New York State Education Department told BuzzFeed News it has asked Lockport to delay its use of facial recognition technology on students. The full statement is below.
Next week, a school district in western New York will become the first in the United States to pilot a facial recognition system on its students and faculty. On Monday, June 3, the Lockport City School District will light up its Aegis system as part of a pilot project that will make it broadly operational by Sept. 1, 2019. The district has eight schools.
Superintendent Michelle Bradley announced the move on Tuesday, as first reported by The Lockport Union-Sun and Journal. Bradley described the test as an “initial implementation phase" meant to troubleshoot the system, train district officials on its use, and discuss proper procedures with local law enforcement in the event of an alert triggered by the facial recognition tech.
The Lockport pilot comes amid increased scrutiny of facial recognition’s efficacy across the US, including growing civil rights concerns and worries that the tech may serve to further entrench societal biases. Earlier this month, San Francisco banned police from using facial recognition, and similar bills in the US hope to do the same. Amazon has endured persistent pressure — including from its own shareholders — for its aggressive salesmanship of its facial Rekognition system to law enforcement agencies. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressed concern that facial recognition could be used as a form of social control in a congressional hearing on the technology last week.
Other schools have considered implementing facial recognition systems, but Lockport will be the first public school district to begin using the tech, the American Civil Liberties Union told BuzzFeed News.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to the Lockport City School District and the maker of the Aegis system for comment.
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Lockport resident Jim Shultz, a vocal critic of the school district’s plan to use facial recognition, described the upcoming pilot as “a dicey move”: “I think the district is desperate not to begin another school year with their expensive system just sitting there,” he told BuzzFeed News.
In March 2018, Lockport announced its plans to install a facial recognition security system, which it funded through the New York Smart Schools Bond Act — an act meant to help state schools augment their instructional tech. But instead of buying laptops and iPads, Lockport submitted a proposal for a high-tech security system, and allocated much of the $4.2 million it was given toward adding dozens of surveillance cameras in the school and installing the facial recognition system Aegis, which is provided by Canada-based SN Technologies. To date, Lockport has spent $1.4 million to get the system up and running.
“Aegis is an early warning system that informs staff of threats including guns or individuals who have been identified as not allowed in our buildings,” stated an FAQ distributed to the school’s parents and obtained by BuzzFeed News. “Aegis has the ability [to screen] every door and throughout buildings to identify people or guns. Early detection of a threat to our schools allows for a quicker and more effective response.”
The district's letter to parents makes the case for facial recognition in light of the specter of recurring school shootings. "Much to our dismay, acts of violence in schools continue to occur in our country," it reads. "Please be assured that the Lockport City School District continues to make school security a priority."
According to the FAQ, Aegis will track individuals who are “level 2 or 3 sex offenders, students who have been suspended from school, staff who have been suspended and/or are on administrative leave, any persons that have been notified that they may not be present on District property, anyone prohibited from entry to District property by court order … or anyone believed to pose a threat based on credible information presented to the District.” The Lockport Journal further reported that the object recognition system will also be able to detect 10 types of guns.
The video footage will be kept for 60 days, after which it will be erased from the server, the FAQ says. And while it adds that the system “will not generate information on or record the movements of any other district students, staff or visitors,” previous reporting from BuzzFeed News has shown that in order to effectively flag the faces of "persons of interest," facial recognition systems must also disregard the faces of persons who are not of interest. In other words, it analyzes them, too.
After Lockport’s initial announcement, the New York Civil Liberties Union investigated the effort and wrote letters to the New York State Education Department, asking it to intervene and block the project. “This is opening the floodgates,“ Stefanie Coyle, education counsel for NYCLU, told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “San Francisco banned this tech, and it’s this major city closest to all the people who understand this tech the best. Why in the world would we want this to come to New York, and in a place where there are children?”
Meanwhile, New York State Assembly Member Monica Wallace has introduced a bill that, if passed, would force Lockport to stop the use of facial recognition for a year while the State Education Department further studied the tech.
But the NYCLU’s Coyle also pointed out that the New York State Assembly’s legislative session is “almost over” — it comes to a close in June. “We’re running out of time for [this bill] to be passed this session. So if it doesn’t pass this session, there’s nothing that will stop Lockport from implementing this facial recognition system in the fall.” ●
On Thursday, the New York State Education Department told BuzzFeed News it has asked Lockport to delay its use of facial recognition technology on students.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said, “The Department is currently reviewing the Lockport CSD’s privacy assessment to ensure that student data will be protected with the addition of the new technology. The Department has not come to the conclusion that the District has demonstrated the necessary framework is in place to protect the privacy of data subjects and properly secure the data. As such, it is the Department’s continued recommendation that the District delay its use of facial recognition technology.
Regulations are in the process of being finalized that will adopt a standard for data privacy and security for all state educational agencies. We recommended in past communication that the District consider reviewing the standard and related materials in developing and refining its data security and privacy program. We will remain in contact with school district officials.”
As first reported by The Lockport Journal's Connor Hoffman, District Superintendent Michelle Bradley said she made the state education department aware of the district's intentions to activate its facial recognition system earlier this month, but no one from the department responded at the time — so Lockport assumed it could go ahead with its trial run of the technology.