Niagara Gazette: State Lawmakers to Lockport School District: Quit While You're Ahead

Originally published in The Niagara Gazette on June 23, 2020.

On June 23, 2020 Connor Hoffman of the Niagara Gazette published a story about Senator Kavanagh's efforts with Assemblymember Monica Wallace to keep facial recognition surveillance technology out of the Lockport City School District and other schools in New York, and the legislators' response to a lawsuit recently filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union. The full text of the story is below; the original version is available via the link above.

State Lawmakers to Lockport School District: Quit While You're Ahead
By Connor Hoffman
June 23, 2020

In a joint statement Tuesday, state Assembly Member Monica Wallace and state Sen. Brian Kavanagh called on Lockport City School District and the New York State Education Department to implement a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology and avoid any further legal liability for the district and the state. 

On Monday, New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against State Ed arguing that the facial recognition-capable surveillance system being used by the Lockport school district violates state education privacy laws by using student data, and State Ed is wrong to assert that it doesn't.

State Ed and the Lockport district, which is not a defendant in the lawsuit, have argued that the district's policy prohibiting inclusion of current students in the system's database of unwanted persons means no student data is being used. The civil liberties union disagrees, suggesting that student data is used to verify someone is not in the database.

The lawsuit "illustrates, yet again, why it is urgent for NYSED to alter its course on this issue. We have proposed legislation to impose a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology in schools, but NYSED and school districts themselves have the authority to take that step now, without waiting for either the Legislature or the courts to require that," Wallace and Kavanagh said in their statement. 

Wallace and Kavanagh expressed concern about the ways the technology can violate the privacy rights and civil rights of students, staff and visitors to Lockport schools. 

Another point NYCLU touches on in its suit is the oft-reported inaccuracy of biometric technology when it's used on people of color, and that concern is shared by Wallace and Kavanagh as well.

“The National Institute of Standards and Technology recently found that African American and Asian individuals were falsely identified up to 100 times more than Caucasians. Numerous studies have found that the technology is generally less accurate when scanning the faces of young people, people of color, and women," the Wallace-Kavanagh statement said. "Our bill gives NYSED an avenue to address these issues and develop detailed guidelines on the use of this technology, if it decides to allow its use at all, before any young people are subjected to this invasive form of surveillance."

The Wallace-Kavanagh statement concludes with a request for both the state education department and the Lockport district to adopt their own moratoriums on the use of facial recognition technology:

“This lawsuit comes at a time when state and local governments, including schools, face significant fiscal stress as a result of COVID-19. It makes no sense for NYSED to spend taxpayer dollars to defend its decision to permit a technology that may ultimately be prohibited in schools. Therefore, we encourage NYSED and the Lockport City School District to adopt their own moratoriums on facial recognition technology, in order to avoid unnecessary litigation costs at a time when education resources are scarce.”

District superintendent Michelle Bradley did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the Wallace-Kavanagh call. Earlier Tuesday, she sent a statement indicating the district is watching the lawsuit. 

"The Lockport City School District is aware of media reports that a legal proceeding was commenced in Albany by the New York Civil Liberties Union challenging the State Education Department’s review of the District’s AEGIS System. The District will continue to monitor this matter," Bradley wrote. "The AEGIS System became operational on January 2, 2020 following a thoughtful and deliberative implementation process which included constructive dialogue with the State Education Department. The District is confident that the AEGIS System enhances the safety and security of the District’s students, staff and visitors, and that the District has adopted appropriate measures to ensure that privacy interests are recognized and protected. Pursuant to District Policy, no student data will be generated or maintained by the AEGIS system."

A State Ed spokesperson told the Union-Sun & Journal that the department does not comment on pending litigation, and since the Wallace-Kavanagh moratorium call is related to the suit, the department won't comment on that, either.

The plaintiffs in the suit are Lockport residents Jim Shultz, a frequent and vocal critic of the surveillance system, and newly elected school Trustee Renee Cheatham.

"Being spied on by high-tech surveillance should never be the price of going to school, not in Lockport, not anywhere," Shultz said on Monday.

In an affidavit, Cheatham expressed concern about the inaccuracies and racial bias that reportedly plague facial recognition technology. She further adds that the money spent on Aegis and the cameras — $2.7 million — could have been better spent on technology that supports learning.

All district schools are under Aegis software-powered surveillance and NYCLU argues that students’ faces are continuously scanned by the system to see whether they match any of the photos in the school's "Hot List" of people not allowed on school grounds. The data from the system is maintained for at least 60 days, according to the district's policy, and there are several carve-outs that allow for the images to be stored for a longer period.

NYCLU argues there’s a risk that students, parents or staff will be misidentified as Hot List subjects, and that the stored information could be accessed by hackers.

State Ed signed off on Lockport's operation of the surveillance system in November 2019, after the school board revised its system use policy by removing students from the list of people eligible for inclusion in the Aegis database of individuals whose presence on school property would trigger an alert. The board approved that change after months of back-and-forth between the district and State Ed over privacy issues.

The district used $1.4 million of the $4.2 million allocated to it through New York’s Smart Schools Bond Act to acquire and install one of the first facial and object recognition security systems in an American school. The system relies on the Aegis software suite created by Canadian-based SN Technologies. The facial recognition software works by using a database of flagged individuals and sending an alert to district personnel when a flagged person is detected on school property. The object recognition feature would reportedly detect 10 types of guns and alert certain district personnel, as well as law enforcement, if a weapon is detected.