Privacy advocates issue warnings as facial recognition planned for U.S. schools

A pair of U.S. school boards are implementing facial recognition systems in schools to improve their security, Gizmodo reports, and the plan is drawing criticism from public policy experts and civil liberties advocates.

The Lockport City School District in Lockport, New York has announced plans to install new cameras with facial recognition and object recognition software at eight schools, at a cost of nearly $4 million in state grant money.

“Schools are justified in thinking about safety, both in terms of gun violence and other possible hazards,” Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Gizmodo. “At the same time, these technologies do not exist in a vacuum; we know, for instance, that facial recognition is less accurate for women and people of color, and also that school discipline is imposed more harshly on children of color.”

MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini has shown wide disparities between accuracy rates of leading facial recognition technologies matching different demographics.

The Magnolia School Board in Magnolia, Arkansas has approved $287,217 in funding to install more than 200 cameras at a pair of schools in the district, which will be equipped with facial recognition and other capabilities, including infrared imaging. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arkansas responded with a warning about the potential privacy risks of such a project, noting that CCTV systems in four British schools were hacked and their live feeds placed on the internet last month.

“All of us want schools to be safe, but subjecting students to an unproven, costly, and intrusive biometric surveillance system is not the answer,” said ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar. “These kinds of facial recognition systems are also vulnerable to hacking and abuse – compromising students’ privacy and diverting money away from other pressing educational needs. Communities and schools need to think hard about what type message they are sending to our kids when they monitor them in school like they were prisoners in a detention facility. We urge the Magnolia School Board, and all Arkansas school districts, to avoid these expensive, harmful gimmicks and consider more sensible approaches to keeping schools safe.”

Biometrics have previously been used in U.S. schools much less controversially to track subsidized lunch programs.

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