In my job as a reporter, I spent 2-1/2 years questioning Lockport City School District officials persistently about their implementation of one of the first facial and object recognition systems in an American public school system.
One of the most important observations I took away from this was that district officials never seriously listened to the concern about privacy violations or reported concerns about the inaccuracy of the technology identifying people of color.
Even before any serious questions were raised, district officials made sure to use whatever tools they had to stifle any possible opposition. The public hearing to formally field comments from the public was held at 4:30 in the afternoon on an August day in 2016.
Who seriously expected any working parent to attend such a meeting?
Just recently, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill into law that effectively imposes a temporary ban on facial recognition in schools until at least 2022. The new state law also requires the New York State Education Department, with assistance from the state Office of Information Technology, to study the issues with facial recognition in schools and seek feedback.
The thorough analysis required by the new law is exactly what should have been done in Lockport, and it is fantastic to see some proper research and communication will now be conducted.
Let me just be upfront. I think Lockport’s superintendent of schools, Michelle Bradley, truly does care about students, but she and the other district staff involved were and are vastly in over their heads with this system. Additionally, any time a Lockport administrator is questioned about it, the administrator reacts defensively and dismissively.
Despite all their time educating children, district administrators consistently refused to learn from questioning of the facial recognition project.
How is it that the district spent $1.4 million on a system that cannot be turned on and no one has admitted that maybe they screwed up?
Jim Shultz, a columnist for this newspaper and a Lockport district parent, led the initial fight against the system until New York Civil Liberties Union joined the fight later in 2018. Both Jim and NYCLU consistently raised valid questions about the experimental nature of the technology, the reported inaccuracies with people of color, and the potential for the system to be hacked.
Despite both Jim and the civil liberties union both raising these questions in good faith, district administrators quickly labeled both as just opposed completely to the technology. Usually their questions were just met with some line suggesting they did not understand the district’s system. Even when I asked questions, Bradley would never answer the phone; instead she just sent a statement filled with bureaucratese and nonsense, quite frankly.
Bradley and her team never answered when they were informed that Tony Olivo, the supposedly impartial security consultant who suggested Lockport invest in the system, was a partner in the same company whose product he was recommending. In fact, Robert LiPuma, the district’s technology director, chastised me for not being “objective” and threatened to invite another reporter for his triumphant unveiling of Aegis, which never materialized, if I continued to question district officials about Olivo.
Even after the moratorium law was signed last month, Bradley's statement to the US&J expressed her feeling that New York State des not understand the system.
Now is the time for Bradley to listen to the real experts.
Connor Hoffman is a former Lockport Union-Sun & Journal reporter who extensively covered Lockport City School District’s fight to implement its facial and object recognition system. Eventually the story became national news. Connor now is a law student at Michigan State University and is enjoying way less snow than Lockport but somehow colder winters. Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.