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Cuomo signs temporary ban on use of facial recognition in schools into law

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
A new law signed Tuesday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo temporarily prohibits all New York schools from purchasing or using any biometric identifying technology, including facial recognition systems.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed one of the country’s first statewide restrictions on the use of all biometric identifying technology in schools into law Tuesday.

The new legislation includes facial recognition technology and will force the Lockport City School District to stop using its controversial AEGIS security system, which was activated in January this year, making Lockport one of the first school districts in the country to start using facial recognition technology.

“Facial recognition surveillance never belonged in the school,” said Jim Shultz, a Lockport parent who helped lead local opposition to the technology. “[This legislation] is an important victory for students not only in Lockport but everywhere in the State of New York.”

Jim Shultz at NYCLU Town Hall
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Jim Shultz spoke to fellow Lockport parents and community leaders at a town hall meeting hosted by the NYCLU in Lockport on Feb. 25, 2020.

The new law prohibits all schools in New York State from purchasing or using any biometric identifying technology until July 1, 2022, or until the New York State Education Department (NYSED) conducts a comprehensive study and makes recommendations on whether such technology should be used in schools.

“This technology is moving really quickly without a lot of concern about the impact on children,” said Stefanie Coyle, deputy director of the education policy center at the New York Civil Liberties Union, which advocated for the moratorium as it made its way through the State Assembly and Senate this year. “This bill will actually put the brakes on that.”

The NYCLU has led a legal fight against the AEGIS system in Lockport, citing concerns about student privacy and the racial biases that numerous studies show are built into most commercial facial recognition systems. The algorithm that powers AEGIS, for example, is 10 times better at recognizing white male faces than Asian and Black female faces, according to a Dec. 2019 report on demographic performance by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

AEGIS security system
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
WBFO was shown a preview in Feb. 2020 of how the AEGIS security system alerts human monitors when it recognizes a gun or an individual on school property who appears to match the photo of someone entered into the district's database.

An investigation by VICE News published earlier this month also found that SN Technologies, the company that developed AEGIS and sold it to Lockport, misled the school district about how accurate its algorithm was and how often it misidentified Black faces.

In a written statement provided to WBFO Wednesday, the Lockport City School District said it “does not believe that many of the concerns that have been expressed with regard to facial recognition are applicable to the District’s particular use of this technology, including with regard to the accuracy of such technology.”

The district also pointed out that its $2.7 million purchases of the AEGIS system and new video surveillance cameras were approved by the New York State Smart Schools Review Board in 2017.

“The District continues to believe that its students, staff and visitors should not be deprived of the additional layer of security provided by the District’s facial recognition system,” the statement continued. “Nonetheless, the District will, of course, comply with applicable law.”

NYSED changed its guidelines for Smart Schools Bond Act purchases at some point last spring, quietly removing facial recognition technology from the kinds of security systems it would fund, as documented by former Lockport Union-Sun & Journal reporter Connor Hoffman. However, Coyle, of the NYCLU, said at least 11 school district applications for security systems that include facial recognition capabilities were approved as recently as July 30.

Shultz, who authored a New York Times op-ed about his opposition to facial recognition technology in schools and was featured in the same newspaper’s coverage of the system in Lockport, said he hopes New York’s bipartisan moratorium will serve as a warning for school administrators in other states who might be considering investing in facial recognition security systems.

“Any school district in the country that is even considering this and does a two-minute Google search is going to stumble upon the nightmare of Lockport’s experience for the last three years,” he said. “You have to have a hole in your head to be a school administrator anywhere in the country and go down this road.”

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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