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Plans to use facial recognition technology across US schools sparks concern

Schools are planning to use facial recognition for security purposes, but parents are not too happy. Source: Shutterstock

Last week, it was reported that the Lockport city district in New York was going to be the first in the US to implement facial recognition technology in schools.

It was initially planned to be used as a security measure to identify people who could potentially be a threat to school safety, in response to the rise in school shootings in the country.

The district was set to begin using the Aegis facial recognition system this week as a pilot project, planning to make it fully operational by September 1 when the new school year begins.

In a letter to parents, superintendent Michelle Bradley said, “Much to our dismay, school shootings continue to occur in our country. In many cases, these shootings involve students connected to the schools where these horrific incidents occur. The Lockport city school district continues to make school security a priority.”

According to The Guardian, “The system is designed to detect the faces of people barred from Lockport schools, sex offenders, suspended students and staff members, and others deemed to be a threat, and alert officials if they are found on school grounds. The system can also detect guns, the district says.”

A statement has been released by the New York State Education Department to Buzzfeed News, claiming they have asked the district to delay the plans.

An Education Department spokesman also told The Buffalo News last week, “We have made it clear, the department has not approved the testing of the system planned for next week and we told the district not to commence the testing of the technology until we receive information that assures us that student information will be properly protected.”

This is due to a number of concerns from the general public and educators alike. Firstly, facial recognition software is an emerging technology and has not been perfected yet.

Last year, a study found that some of the most popular facial surveillance systems have ‘societal biases’ – meaning they were better at identifying white men’s faces, and more inaccuracies were found when identifying people of colour or female faces.

But the overarching thing troubling parents when it comes to facial recognition technology is to do with privacy and civil rights.

Parents are calling out the school district for spending most of their funding (which was allocated under the New York Smart Schools Bond Act to help schools pay for instructional technology) on surveillance cameras and installing the facial recognition system, Aegis.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Beyond the incredible expense, these kinds of surveillance systems also pose serious privacy and safety risks for everyone at Lockport schools, especially children.

“In the system Lockport purchased, once a person’s facial image is captured by the technology and uploaded, the system can go back and track that person’s movements around the school over the previous 60 days.

“It’s easy to imagine that students will feel like they are constantly under suspicion. Lockport is sending the message that it views students as unpredictable, potential criminals who must have their faces scanned wherever they go.”

As children as young as 4 and 5 will be subjected to facial recognition in schools, the ACLU is also concerned over who has access to the database.

As there haven’t been any proper regulations approved by the government yet for using facial recognition, whether in schools or other public areas, many member of the public are worried the district is jumping the gun.

Due to the New York State Education Department’s order and protests by parents, the district will not be going ahead with its plans to use the facial recognition software this week, according to a statement released last Friday.

“The district has assured us no facial recognition software will be used next week while it tests other components of the system, NYSED staff will visit the district to learn about the district’s system. NYSED staff will visit the district to learn about the district’s system.”

Facial recognition technology is already being used in airports in the US, but many parties are still opposed to its use. Earlier this month, San Francisco became the first US city to ban it.

In light of this, other school districts who plan to use this technology should first ask themselves whether schools in the country are ready for facial recognition to be implemented.

Without the general consent of parents and proper government regulations, implementing such a controversial new technology – given the high costs and privacy factors – should be a mutual and carefully-deliberated decision by all parties when it comes to K-12 education.

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