The New York Civil Liberties Union is calling on the state Legislature to implement a ban on facial recognition technology in public schools when it convenes in January.
The NYCLU calls out Lockport City School District, which added facial recognition software to its security camera system earlier this year, by name in its report, “The First 100 Days: Albany’s Path to a Fairer New York.”
That report also calls on state lawmakers to reform the state’s voting process and criminal justice system, adopt protections for undocumented immigrants and transgender New Yorkers, and enact various health-related legislation, including removing abortion from the state’s criminal law, increasing access to birth control and enacting a right to die law.
Many of those proposals were stymied for years by Republican control of the state Senate. But after last month’s elections, in which Democrats picked up eight Senate seats and gained a convincing majority in both chambers, progressives see many of these long-held goals within reach.
“It’s a new day in New York. With changed leadership in Albany, our state legislature has the opportunity – and the mandate – to transform New York into the state that we’ve always envisioned, one that secures fairness and equality for all New Yorkers,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU.
But unlike other NYCLU proposals, a facial recognition ban in public schools is not a long-time progressive pet cause. Few in the state paid much attention to the technology — and the privacy questions it raises — until news spread about the Lockport school district’s system earlier this year.
What’s more, no bill to ban the technology has been introduced in either the Senate or the Assembly.
The closest thing is a bill, introduced by Assembly Member Thomas Abinanti, a Westchester County Democrat, prohibiting the state, state agencies or any contractor working for the state from retaining facial recognition images or from sharing such images with a third party unless legally authorized by a court.
It’s not clear how Abinanti’s bill would affect Lockport schools. Last week, the board of education approved a security policy that stipulates camera-captured images may not be retained for more than 60 days, unless the information is part of an investigation or retained in conjunction with a log of security alerts.
Meanwhile, statewide and national Democrats have yet to show interest in a bill that would ban Lockport’s new security system.
A spokesman for the New York State Senate Democratic Conference said the party's incoming majority will "review legislation and work tirelessly to protect rights and improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers."
But the NYCLU has laid out an argument in favor of a ban that touches on several rallying causes of leftist activists.
“Facial recognition technology has been shown to be inaccurate, particularly in identifying women, young people, and people of color,” writes the NYCLU, citing findings from a Georgetown Law Center report. “The use of this technology has the potential to turn schools into surveillance areas and youthful misbehavior into a crime.”
The NYCLU also raised concern about how the information will be maintained and shared, who will have access to it and the technology’s potential for use in immigration enforcement, which could discourage undocumented immigrants from sending their children to school.
A call to Lockport City School District Superintendent Michelle Bradley was not immediately returned.
Bradley issued a statement Wednesday morning noting the district has policies to protect student privacy, and is awaiting input on those policies from the state Education Department.
"It continues to be falsely suggested that students will be subjected to invasive surveillance, and will have every movement monitored and recorded," Bradley said in the statement. "The reality is that the facial recognition technology will be limited in application to only those individuals who present an immediate or potential threat to the safety of the school community, such as Level 2 or 3 sex offenders, persons prohibited by court order from entering District property and anyone believed to pose a threat based on credible information."
Bradley added the system will not track movements or preserve data on students, staff or visitors.
The NYCLU also criticized the Lockport district’s security plans in detail in an August report, saying the district failed to solicit comment from the public and other stakeholders and lacked a clear policy on use of the technology.