LOCKPORT, N.Y. — I have a 16-year-old daughter, and like every parent in the United States today, I worry about her safety when she’s in school. But here in Western New York’s Lockport City School District, those fears have led to a wasteful and dangerous experiment.
This week the district’s eight public schools began testing a system called Aegis, which includes facial recognition technology, that could eventually be used to track and map student movements in our schools. How that happened is a cautionary tale for other schools across the country.
In 2015, in the wake of Sandy Hook and other high-profile school shootings, our district was approached by Tony Olivo, a security consultant, who offered to do a free threat assessment of our schools. Later, he encouraged the school district to purchase and install a high-tech facial-recognition camera system developed by SN Technologies, a Canadian company whose sole surveillance experience was in the casino industry. But the software cost a fortune — $1.4 million for a district of a little over 4,400 students and an annual budget of just over $100 million.
Mr. Olivo identified a funding source the district could use to make the purchase — using money Lockport was set to receive for technology education under a 2014 Smart Schools Bond Act. Far from being an independent expert, however, he also stood to benefit financially from the deal. A proposed licensing agreement the school district was forced to disclose showed that Mr. Olivo’s company, CSI Risk Management, was negotiating a payment of $95,450 annually for five years. Neither he nor the school district would disclose what he was eventually paid.
While high-technology security is among the allowed expenditures under the Smart Schools Bond Act, it’s doubtful that facial-recognition technology is what voters had in mind. Neighboring districts invested their money in iPads and faster internet, while we bought spy cameras.
Despite the privacy implications, the Lockport school district held only one public meeting to discuss the purchase of the surveillance technology using state funds. The meeting was held on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-August 2016, when most parents were away or at work. Unsurprisingly, no one interrupted their summer vacation to attend, and yet district officials dutifully vouched to the state that they had complied with the legal requirement to consult with students, teachers and parents. New York State Education authorities approved the project in 2017.
The facial-recognition software is designed to detect weapons and the faces of people barred from Lockport schools, like sex offenders, suspended students and staff members, and others deemed to be a threat. It is triggered only when it spots the physical presence of the very specific people entered in its database. While it will automatically notify the police if it detects a gun (unless it is hidden in a backpack), the district would have to accurately predict who a school shooter will be in advance, get his picture and load it into the database.
The technology’s potential is chilling. When Mr. Olivo was pitching the system, he explained that it would have the capacity to go back and create a map of the movements and associations of any student or teacher the district might choose. It can tell them who has been seen with whom, where and how often. District officials pledge that they would never deploy the software in that way, but if we have learned anything from the privacy breaches at Facebook and elsewhere, what matters is not what those in charge promise but what an intrusive technology has the capacity to do. Facial recognition technology is also notoriously unreliable, particularly when it comes to recognizing women and people of color.
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While our community was left in the dark, details of the plan finally did come out thanks to the efforts of our local daily paper, The Union-Sun and Journal. Our town Facebook page was filled with complaints about “wasted money” and “big brother.” Students I spoke with said things like, “That is a total invasion of our privacy!” A teacher told me, “I usually assign “1984” to my students, now we will be living it.”
Well meaning as they may be, the members of a small-town, volunteer school board are not the right people to evaluate and manage a system of such untested powers of surveillance. When I raised these issues as a concerned parent at a school board meeting, district officials and Mr. Olivo waved away the risks with a joke about the likelihood that North Korea might hack the high school’s computers.
Thanks to the efforts of the New York Civil Liberties Union, state officials have finally begun to ask the kinds of questions they should have asked before the project was approved. On Wednesday, the New York Assembly Education Committee approved a bill that would put a moratorium on the use of facial recognition in schools for a year to allow for further study of the issue. Nonetheless, the school district is forging ahead with its testing and its plans to make the cameras fully operational when school starts up again in the fall.
Lockport is a beautiful small town that sits astride the Erie Canal just a short drive from Niagara Falls. It is a place where the usual debates are about things like where to shoot off our Fourth of July fireworks, not about artificial intelligence aimed at students. “It’s creepy that these cameras can watch you and can figure out who you are,” my daughter said. “We don’t even know who is watching us.” Being spied on like dissidents is not part of the high school experience that any of us would want for our children. Not here, not anywhere.
Jim Shultz (@jimshultz) is founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and author of the forthcoming book “My Other Country: Nineteen Years a Gringo in Bolivia.”
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