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Technology New York school district's facial recognition system sparks privacy fears

Luke Skywalker

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A school district in western New York is launching a first-of-its-kind facial recognition system, generating new privacy concerns about the powerful but controversial technology.

The Lockport city school district is beginning implementation of the Aegis facial recognition system this week, officials said, with the technology expected to be fully up and running in time for the new school year in September.

“Much to our dismay, school shootings continue to occur in our country. In many cases, these shootings involve students connected to the schools where these horrific incidents occur,” superintendent Michelle Bradley said in a message to parents. “The Lockport city school district continues to make school security a priority.”

The system is designed to detect the faces of people barred from Lockport schools, sex offenders, suspended students and staff members, and others deemed to be a threat, and alert officials if they are found on school grounds. The system can also detect guns, the district says.

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A handful of other school districts around the US have begun to use facial recognition, but Lockport is the first to institute a system of this kind, with cameras throughout the school building rather than just at doors, said Jim Shultz, a Lockport resident whose daughter is a sophomore at the local high school, and the head of the not-for-profit Democracy Center.

He said the technology would be both ineffective and an invasion of privacy.

“From a school safety point of view, it’s just a colossal waste of money. The way the system is designed to work is you would have to know in advance who a school shooter would be – you’d have to get their picture and put it in the system, and you’d have to hope they didn’t put on a ski mask or something on the way in,” Shultz told the Guardian. Even then, an alert would be unlikely to stop an attack in time, he said.

The system, to be used in the district’s eight schools, will place cameras in hallways and throughout school buildings but not in classrooms, which would violate teachers’ contract.

“It’s an unprecedented invasion of privacy on our students,” Shultz said, adding that students’ movements through hallways and interactions with classmates could be tracked. “That’s an insane thing to make a precondition of getting a high school education.”

The district says it will not record the movements of students, staff or visitors who are not on the threat list.

“While it’s controversial, it’s not prohibited and the most important thing is we believe we’ve established boundaries in the use of this,” Bradley told the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, which first reported plans for the technology. “We have a policy that intends to protect privacy. We have identified a small group of individuals who will be placed in a database.”

The district did not immediately respond to requests for further.

The system is being paid for with a grant from New York state for technology education, which local districts were also allowed to use for hi-tech security.

“Every other district used their money for faster broadband and new iPads,” Shultz said. “We’re the only district that did this stupid thing.”


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