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NYCLU suing state Education Department over Lockport schools’ facial recognition technology

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
The ACLU of New York filed a lawsuit Monday against the state education department over its approval of Lockport schools' facial recognition technology. Photo: The NYCLU held a town hall meeting and distributed flyers in Lockport on Feb. 25.

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Monday against the state Education Department over its approval of the Lockport City School District’s facial recognition security system, which was activated in January.

The lawsuit alleges that the new security system, called AEGIS, violates student data protection laws. “Facial recognition surveillance is intrusive, biased, and inaccurate, and it has no place in schools,” said Stefanie Coyle, deputy director of the NYCLU’s Education Policy Center, in a press release.

The New York State Education Department (NYSED) had to approve Lockport’s activation of the new system, so a successful lawsuit could revoke that permission.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
The AEGIS security system sends an alert to human monitors when it recognizes an individual on school property who appears to match the photo of someone entered into the district's database, which includes Level 2 and 3 sex offenders and any suspended staff members. Lockport agreed not to include any students in the photo database following opposition from the NYCLU and NYSED.

The Lockport City School District has disputed many of the NYCLU’s claims over the past two years of sparring over the technology. Speaking to WBFO in January, the district’s director of technology, data security and communications, Dr. Robert LiPuma, said the new system—which also recognizes drawn guns—will help protect students from threats like school shootings.

“We’re using facial recognition technology, but we’re using it in a very specific form for a very specific purpose,” LiPuma said.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Renee Cheatham, third from left, attends the NYCLU town hall meeting in Lockport on Feb. 25, 2020, along with other concerned residents.

Commercial facial recognition systems have come under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks because research shows that most systems exhibit racial biases and are more likely to misidentify women and people of color. That’s a concern held by Renee Cheatham, a Black Lockport parent and one of the plaintiffs in the NYCLU lawsuit. Cheatham also won a seat on the Lockport school board this month.

“It seems like there wasn’t enough research done on this facial recognition,” Cheatham said, speaking to WBFO at a town hall meeting in Lockport hosted by the NYCLU in February. “It seems like it’s geared a lot towards minorities, okay? These kids go through enough every day going to school that I don’t think they need to be subject to this.”

More than one in four Lockport students is a student of color, according to state data. There are also pending state and federal legislative efforts to rein in facial recognition technology, which is currently unregulated.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D—Mich.) is a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, one of the bodies considering such legislation. She recently clashed with the Detroit police department over its use of facial recognition technology and wrote on Twitter, “Facial recognition technology is racist.”

Cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Somerville, Massachusetts—near Boston and MIT, where some of the leading research on facial recognition technology has been conducted—all banned government use of facial recognition technology last year. Other efforts to do the same are currently underway in Denver and Portland.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Lockport parent Jim Shultz, now a plaintiff in the NYCLU lawsuit, has been the most vocal opponent of the school district's use of facial recognition technology. In June 2019, Shultz authored a New York Times op-ed titled, "Spying on Children Won't Keep Them Safe."

“I think the one public service that the Lockport school district has performed for the whole country is to lift itself up as a cautionary tale,” said Jim Shultz, a Lockport parent, columnist for the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, and the second plaintiff in the NYCLU lawsuit. “This is not how you protect children and this is not how you deal with questions of putting artificial intelligence in a public school system.”

Lockport became the first public school district in New York State and one of the first school districts in the country to start using facial recognition technology when it activated the AEGIS system earlier this year. The district purchased a five-year license for the technology for $1.4 million using public funds approved through the Smart Schools Bond Act (SSBA), which exists to “finance improved educational technology and infrastructure,” according to NYSED.

The district spent a total of $2.7 million of its SSBA allocation of nearly $4.3 million on hardware and software required for the new system, including replacements of the district’s video surveillance cameras.

Johanna Miller, director of the NYCLU’s Education Policy Center, said NYSED shouldn’t have approved the AEGIS purchase or subsequent activation of the system, which it provided shortly before Thanksgiving after more than a year and a half of delay.

“We think that the state has fallen down on its duties here,” Miller said at the town hall meeting in February. “It’s very unfair to put school districts in the position of having to vet this technology, especially when… people who work in school districts are there because they want to help kids, and they’re under a lot of pressure to do anything you can. And now they have to make a decision, ‘Is this a good thing that’s worth our money or not?’”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
The Lockport school board votes on an updated privacy policy for the district's new security system on Jan. 8, 2020. Superintendent Michelle Bradley is seated first on the right.

Lockport Superintendent Michelle Bradley said she’s been working in the district for more than 30 years and “times have changed,” along with security concerns.

“It’s startling. It’s sad, but I believe in the Lockport City School District we are taking necessary measures to keep our schools safe,” Bradley said.

Some Lockport parents agree. Leslie Tobin is the mother of two children in the district and a member of the Lockport school board.

“I think it’s something that more school districts are going to look at across the nation, and I’m kind of excited to be the first ones,” Tobin said. “I am totally fine with the AEGIS system being in the building with my children.”

The state education department did not respond to multiple interview requests from WBFO last winter or specific questions sent by email about NYSED’s SSBA review process and whether or not there are other public school districts already using facial recognition technology in New York State.

Tune into Morning Edition on WBFO Wednesday for more reporting about how the AEGIS system works, as well as concerns raised by Lockport parents and the NYCLU.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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