The long drama of the Lockport school district’s facial recognition surveillance project is coming to an end. In December, New York State imposed a ban on systems like this one until they can be properly studied and evaluated. The new law was supported by both Republicans and Democrats. It was also a direct response to the Lockport district’s system.
The question now is this: Who will be held accountable for wasting $2.7 million of taxpayer funds on a project that turned our children and their teachers into high tech guinea pigs?
The story of how the district got into this mess is now widely known. School district officials put the safety of our children into the hands of a salesman who masqueraded as an independent security expert. They failed to do even basic homework on the system’s effectiveness and its impacts on student privacy. The district also lied to state education officials that they had consulted with the community beforehand.
As reporters from around the country have dug into the story, even more information has become public about the school district’s cameras boondoggle. One of those discoveries is that school district staff investigated me, for the sin of acting like a citizen and asking questions.
One email exchange obtained by a reporter was between Anthony Olivo, the salesman behind the project, and Rob LiPuma, the district technology director and the project’s chief advocate. After I began questioning the project, the two went to work on a theory to explain my criticism. Olivo writes that his “intelligence team” had done some digging. “Here is some information that may be of interest to you.” LiPuma replies, “Thanks Tony, great information.” Their theory was that I had gone to college 40 years ago with the head of a rival technology company and was somehow doing its bidding.
Here are two problems with their theory. First, this executive and I went to two different universities (UC Berkeley and UCLA) that are 400 miles apart. Second, he graduated a decade after I did. That would explain why I never met him and never heard of him. These are the two security geniuses that Superintendent Michelle Bradley and the Board of Education put in charge of our children’s safety.
Here is a direct question for Superintendent Bradley and John Linderman, who was board president at the time: Did you know that district staff were investigating a parent in this way? Is it district policy to have district staff look into a parent’s background if he or she comes forward with questions about a district project?
Other emails obtained by reporters raise questions about whether the district’s facial recognition system actually put our students at greater risk. As recently as February, the multimillion dollar system was generating false gun alerts. In an email to the company LiPuma writes, “Getting a series of gun alerts … we have not rejected them. Please advise.” The company tells the district just to ignore the warnings. Two years into the project and the company was still running tests to train the system to tell the difference between an automatic rifle and a broomstick.
Consider for a moment the potential risk posed by such false alarms. If even one of those false gun alerts made its way to Lockport Police Department, the chief has said it would be treated like a live shooter situation. That means armed police running into our schools looking for someone with a gun. Add to that the system’s dangerous misidentification of Black faces, and it isn’t hard to see the kind of disaster that could result.
The Lockport school district has become a national example of how to mismanage the task of keeping our children safe. Not every district has the honor of sparking a state law to correct its errors. The taxpayer funds that district officials used for their surveillance system could have been used to buy new laptops and iPads for students. That’s what other school districts did, and that new equipment certainly would have been useful to our students this past year.
A public school district can’t just waste $2.7 million and then pretend nothing happened. If district leaders ever want to win back the public trust that they have lost in their cameras debacle, then it is time to hold accountable the board members and staff that got us here. It is time for the district to stop wasting money on lawyers to defend the cameras and look into suing the companies involved to get our money back. It is time to admit that the project was a mistake from the start, one that could have been completely avoided if school officials had done their homework instead of just buying the pretty words of a salesman.
Accountability. As parents, students, teachers and taxpayers, we are certainly owed at least that.
Jim Shultz is a father and grandfather in Lockport, and the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center. Along with three other Lockport parents, he is a plaintiff in a lawsuit by New York Civil Liberties Union against state education authorities over the cameras project. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.