Members of the Lockport school board decided at a special meeting on Monday to intervene in a facial recognition system lawsuit launched last week by the New York Civil Liberties Union and two district residents.
In a resolution approved during the special meeting, the school board argues that the district should have been named as a defendant in the suit, which asks state Supreme Court to overturn the decision by the New York State Education Department that allowed the district to begin using the controversial system.
The lawsuit does not identify Lockport City School District or any district employees or vendors as defendants in the case.
The board's resolution argues that intervention in the lawsuit is necessary to protect the district's interests.
The board also authorized the law firm Hodgson Russ LLP to represent the district in the case.
A call and email to Deborah Coder, assistant superintendent of finance and management services, asking for the hourly rate for the law firm, did not get an immediate reply on Monday evening.
The civil liberties union argues 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 the system doesn’t use student data. NYSED and Lockport district officials have indicated that students are not eligible to be in a database of unwanted persons tied to the system, 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.
NYCLU argues that students’ faces are being continuously scanned by the system to see whether they match any of the photos on the school’s “Hot List” of people not allowed on school grounds. The data from the system is maintained for at least 60 days, according to the district’s policy, and there are several carve-outs that allow for the images to be stored for a longer period.
NYCLU argues there’s a risk that students, parents or staff will be misidentified as "Hot List" subjects, and that the stored information could be accessed by hackers.
The plaintiffs in the suit include district residents Jim Shultz, a frequent and vocal critic of the surveillance system who writes a regular column for the Union-Sun & Journal, and newly elected school Trustee Renee Cheatham.
Lockport district 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 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. The state education department approved 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 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.