New York State to Suspend Facial Recognition in Schools

It goes without saying: students of all ages should enjoy a safe environment in schools. But the realities of our times deviate from this ideal.

To prevent school violence, security systems that include surveillance cameras and facial recognition have become the norm in several US states, particularly in areas with high crime rates. Even though, according to research, the higher the number of cameras in a school, the less safe and supported students feel.

But now, Andrew M. Cuomo, the York State Governor, signed a bill that bans surveillance tools and biometric technology in schools until July 2022.

Facial recognition is leaving New York’s schools

Facial recognition works by matching security camera footage to a database kept by the school district. The database includes sex offenders, unauthorized staff, suspended students, and other threatening people.

New York’s recent legislation focuses on the tech’s replication of biases based on race and gender.

Facial recognition tools use artificial intelligence. Despite their advanced techniques, they are known to face algorithmic bias. These tools sometimes lead to false positives and misidentified suspects. This means they can result in traumatic interactions with law enforcement, loss of class time, disciplinary action, and potentially a criminal record.

African American students believe that installing a facial recognition system that automatically calls the police is risky, and recent police brutality incidents support their views.

“Facial recognition technology could provide a host of benefits to New Yorkers, but its use brings up serious and legitimate privacy concerns that we have to examine, especially in schools. This legislation requires state education policymakers to take a step back, consult with experts and address privacy issues before determining whether any kind of biometric identifying technology can be brought into New York’s schools. The safety and security of our children is vital to every parent, and whether to use this technology is not a decision to be made lightly.”
Governor Cuomo

The excessive use of security tools turns more into surveillance of students instead of keeping dangerous people away. Kids’ and students’ feelings of always being watched might hinder their natural gestures and typical behavior.

Educators have considered facial recognition to be a good indicator of student engagement and learning, as facial expressions reveal if students are bored, confused, delighted, frustrated, or surprised. However, no one asked them if they agree to have their every move watched and recorded.

What’s more, there is also no guarantee that school officials can keep such troves of data safe from hackers and other malicious third parties.

Surveillance in schools tells students they can’t be trusted, and a level of privacy-intrusion is always to be expected.

Face recognition access control is highly effective, and accurate, as the best of these systems use 1:few, matching between the live and stored image without the issues of bias that creep in when matching a stored face against a large gallery of faces. These systems are also a great deterrent to someone who knows they will be identified easily if they do commit a violent act. However, schools should not be using face recognition applied to a video surveillance solution in a proactive manner. Video surveillance does not require face recognition to know an individual is somewhere they should not be, and if that is the case, face recognition should be used in a forensic, retroactive manner to identify someone who has trespassed, shown indications of violence, or committed the violent act. A few clear policies on security and privacy can clarify what use cases are appropriate and not appropriate for school use of face recognition technologies. This is an issue that requires a greater understanding of how face recognition actually works in different types of solutions and contexts, but differentiating video surveillance from face recognition itself – these are two separate solutions – is a first step.
  Janice Kephart, former 9/11 Commission counsel, and CEO Identity Strategy Partners


An extensive study is needed to assess the technology

Alongside the ban, an extensive study will be conducted to determine the fair use of facial recognition in New York schools.

“Before spending millions of dollars on this new and unproven technology, we owe it to students, parents, and taxpayers to take a hard look at whether facial recognition software is appropriate for use in schools. I thank Governor Cuomo for signing this legislation and recognizing the need to further study the issue. There are serious concerns about misidentification, misuse and data privacy that must be considered before allowing this technology to be used in schools across the state.”
Assembly Member Monica P. Wallace

The moratorium on facial recognition and biometric technology from public and private schools will address specific considerations. The study will cover technology’s potential impact on student civil liberties and privacy and how the collected data would be used.

Here is an example from the Lockport City School District. Once the institution introduced facial recognition, the school’s vice president couldn’t guarantee that student photos wouldn’t be used for disciplinary purposes.

Facial recognition systems in schools don’t just raise privacy concerns; they also raise the question of how excessive surveillance could turn into a punitive or discriminatory act against students.

There are no federal, state, or local policies explicitly regulating FR (facial recognition) in schools anywhere in the world. This lack of regulation leaves students unprotected from the negative and potentially unforeseen consequences of FR in schools. Using facial recognition technology in schools is not the right method to reduce violence against students. There is little evidence that it will help enhance school security, as most of the events that the technology is designed to prevent happen very rarely. However, there are real risks to the technology. They can actually increase discrimination against already marginalized students, further commodify their data, erode privacy, and normalize surveillance. And the technology is much less accurate among young people.
Shobita Parthasarathy, Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies, University of Michigan

More about Shobita’s research work here.

US schools use plenty of surveillance tools

America has a tragic history of violence in schools.

For example, during the 2017–18 school year, 80% of public schools recorded at least one incident of violence, theft, or other crimes. The total? 1.4 million incidents.

This has led to the installation of surveillance-based systems in many educational institutions. As numerous threats persist, some parents and teachers have argued that technology is the only way to protect students. Even if this means their school turns into a fortress-like environment.

Source: The US National Centre for Education Statistics

Some schools cover sophisticated monitoring systems, including security cameras, panic buttons, and door control technology. Other companies claim to provide schools smart cameras that can recognize an armed attacker and send an automated alert to local officials. These intelligent cameras send images with precise location details and the type of weaponry the suspect is holding.

And all this is happening at a time when several tech companies have stopped selling their facial recognition software, and even artists are fighting against unlawful surveillance.

This is just the first step towards more privacy

New York is the second state after Florida to ban biometric data in public and private schools. Other states have considered it, proposing and enacting regulations, but they have not reached an effective ban on facial recognition tools.

However, this is only one of the first steps in making schools a more private space. Here’s what Bruce Schneier, the internationally renowned security technologist, wrote for the New York Times:

A ban on facial recognition won’t make any difference if, in response, surveillance systems switch to identifying people by smartphone MAC addresses. The problem is that we are being identified without our knowledge or consent, and society needs rules about when that is permissible.

We hope that, in the future, we’ll see more initiatives like the one in New York taking shape. After all, we’re still a long way from inventing VPN-like technology for our faces.

Do you believe facial recognition systems should be allowed in schools? If so, do you think they could be successful in preventing violent attacks?

Let me know in the comments section below.

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