Moratorium requested for Lockport facial recognition system

File photo A day after members of the Lockport School Board approved a revised policy covering the use of the district's new facial recognition system, the New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the acting head of the New York State Education Department to issue an immediate moratorium to prevent the system from being used. 

The New York Civil Liberties Union has asked the New York State Education Department to place a moratorium the use of a facial recognition system in Lockport schools. 

The request comes less than 24 hours after the Lockport School Board approved revisions to the district's policy for the application of the system. The revised policy included several changes from the original version. The major change eliminates the possibility of suspended student being added to the database tied to the system unless their actions are deemed by law enforcement to constitute a legitimate threat.

On Thursday, NYCLU Education Counsel Stefanie Coyle sent a letter to Beth Berlin, the acting state education department commissioner, criticizing the policy revisions. In addition, Coyle asked state education department officials to impose a moratorium on system implementation. 

"Despite nine months of revisions, the district’s revised facial recognition policy is still deeply flawed and puts students’ privacy and civil rights at risk," Coyle said in a statement issued by the NYCLU. "The policy still provides the district full discretion of who can be placed in the database, including students, and offers minimal safeguards on how long that data can be stored and with whom it can be shared. There is no policy that will sufficiently address the inherent issues with facial recognition, and the state education department must issue an immediate ban on its use on students in schools."

In Coyle's letter, she said the new policy changes "do little to quell" NYCLU's concerns about potential violations of student privacy and civil rights. Although the district took suspended students out of the database categories, Coyle questioned other aspects of the policy, including references to "any persons who have been notified that they may not be on district property" and "anyone believed to pose a threat based on credible information presented to the district. " The language, Coyle contends, still affords the district the ability to add students to the database as "unwanted individuals." 

"These two categories leave the district wide discretion, and can and will include students, whether already suspended or not. In fact, school board members and district employees have publicly acknowledged that students will still be targeted by this system," Coyle wrote. "The district's policy also states that the Board of Education will receive a weekly update 'when a suspended student or staff member is added to the database,' thus directly acknowledging that students will be included in the system." 

Coyle said regardless of what changes are made to the policy, the issue still remains that "facial recognition is an inaccurate and biased tool that will invade the privacy of students, staff, parents, and community members in the schools. 

"Given the significant inaccuracy, bias, privacy, and other concerns with the use of biometric surveillance, the New York State Education Department must prevent more districts from wasting public money and time on obtaining these systems," Coyle wrote. 

Coyle also repeated NYCLU's concerns over the possibility of law enforcement agencies having access to information produced by the system. 

"Lockport's Revised Draft Policy does not alleviate our concerns about the use of facial recognition technology in a school. Lockport has imposed no meaningful limits on sharing information produced by the system with law enforcement or 'other governmental authorities,' which can include Immigration and Customs Enforcement," Coyle wrote. "In fact, the Revised Draft Policy explicitly states that the 'alert' produced from the system will be forwarded directly to law enforcement."

Coyle further outlined that the policy allows the district to share the information "as required or permitted by the law." She added that the policy says select employees must turn over request information to law enforcement "as required by law or at the discretion of the superintendent and designees."

Superintendent Michelle Bradley did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

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 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 software reportedly also will detect 10 types of guns.

After district officials announced their intention to start testing the software in June, they were told to stop by state education officials until further notice.

State Assembly Member Monica Wallace has introduced a bill that would impose a moratorium on facial recognition and direct the state education department to study the issue further. The bill passed the assembly but was not acting in the state senate before the legislature ended the legislative session in June.