Why a blanket ban of facial recognition technology in schools would be bad policy
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In response to recent school shootings, school districts, such as the one in New York’s Lockport City, have taken a number of steps to increase security in their schools like bulletproof windows, visitor badging systems and mass notification systems. Lockport, however, has taken it a step further and has begun testing facial recognition to control who can access a campus. This policy raises important questions, is short sighted in contrast to better systems addressing school security and has incited an extreme response from legislators.

Lockport’s software, known as Aegis, will be used to identify weapons, and sex offenders or other individuals not authorized to be on school grounds. The school district has identified a small group of individuals who will be placed in the system. It includes students or staff who have been suspended, or staff on administrative leave, level 2 and level 3 sex offenders, any people who have been notified they may not be on district property, anyone prohibited from entering district property by court order or anyone believed to pose a threat.

The University Child Development School of Seattle also tested facial recognition technology to increase safety and security. The program allowed consenting adults to register their faces and names with the school, allowing school gates to open when cameras verified the adults’ identity. Adults could choose to opt out of registering their faces and enter the school with a manual identity check instead. If the system did not recognize a face, a member of the staff was notified and decided if the individual in question should be allowed on campus or not.

However, the Lockport system is distinctly different from Seattle’s more promising pilot program in a couple of big ways. The Seattle pilot project was a private database encrypting all facial data which was monitored and controlled by trained faculty members, and always remained in the school’s possession. Its privacy policies provided notice, choice, security and access to all individuals involved.

Lockport’s facial recognition software is not a closed system only accessible by the schools authorized staff. Lockport’s documents explaining its new policy do not address if law enforcement agencies will have access to this technology, exactly how much information will be available to the company deploying it, or what will happen when an intruder is identified in the system.

Further, the school district needs to identify which law enforcement database it will be using to compile the list of people it is tracking. The district should also explain how a person might get off the list and what would happen if a person was wrongly identified.

Also, tracking suspended high school students could prevent tragic incidents. But, it could also lead to tracking minor misbehavior and enforcing code of conduct violations, as well as tracking who students associate with. The district needs to explain how it will safeguard against this overbearing treatment of student’s daily lives.

Lockport City school district needs to resolve these issues if facial recognition technology is to become a viable option for New York’s schools. Because, local governments fear privacy violations and are responding with bans.

Recently, Democratic New York Assemblywoman Monica Wallace introduced Assembly Bill 6787. AB6787 would force public, private, and charter schools in the state to stop using facial recognition technology until the commissioner and chief privacy officer study the facial recognition and other biometric identifiers in schools and submit a recommendation.

This is a knee-jerk response to the current technopanic over facial recognition technology. Aggressive actions in New York and elsewhere are prompted by the desire to protect privacy and safety. But that’s a double-edged sword because facial recognition is being used to increase privacy and safety too.

For example, consider securing school access points with a name badge or access key. These can be lost or stolen and then used by intruders to trespass onto school grounds. But a biometric identifier used to unlock an access point, such as scanning a fingerprint or your face, are one of a kind password.

The case of Lockport City School District’s use of facial recognition technology is extreme. But, a blanket ban on the use of this technology in all schools in New York halts creativity and positive new uses of an emerging technology that could keep students and school staff safe and more secure.

Anna Parsons is the Policy Coordinator at the American Legislative Exchange Council, where she focuses on state technology policy in the Center for Innovation and Technology.