Facial biometrics controversy reaches U.S. schools as district trials new security system

Lockport City School District in New York is set to become one of the first in America to pilot biometric facial recognition software in schools.

The Lockport Union-Sun & Journal reports that Superintendent Michelle Bradley announced the test will begin next week, with an initial implementation phase including testing camera angles and lighting and training staff. The district spent $1.4 million of a $4.2 million fund from New York’s Smart Schools Bond Act to fund the installation of new cameras with Aegis facial recognition software from SN Technologies. Eventually, the system is intended to detect guns and individuals on a watch-list, and a Forbes editorial by Digital Barriers CEO Zak Doffman notes that the consultant behind the program claimed it could prevent a “Parkland attack.”

A legal dispute over the deployment broke out in March, when BrainChip alleged SN Technologies used technology it licensed from BrainChip in the deployment, while SN Technologies says it is using different software.

A bill has been introduced in the New York State legislature by Assembly Member Monica Wallace that would force the program to be paused or cancelled while the education department studies facial recognition, according to the Union-Sun & Journal.

Local resident and vocal program opponent Jim Schultz says the application’s total cost is $2.3 million for a school district with 4,800 students, and calls it “foolish.”

“There is no database that’s going to tell you who a school shooter is going be,” he says. “What does it actually buy you, even if it works? It doesn’t buy you the kind of advanced notice that’s going to stop anything.”

Doffman points out that there were 120 seconds between Parkland murderer Nikolas Cruz exiting the Uber he took to the school and firing his first shot, and that identifying him would require having him in the database, with a good enough quality image, the system to quickly identify him, and system operators to identify an alert as a real emergency without taking time to seek verification, and then respond, all within that time. School security is a $2.7 billion business in the country where there have been 288 school shootings since 2009, according to CNN. No other country in the world has had more than eight in the same period.

A school district in Missouri announced the deployment of a security system with facial recognition to multiple schools in April.

Schultz also suggests the school district did not sincerely attempt to engage the community about what it was doing.

“The only consultation with the community,” Shultz told Forbes, “was putting it on the agenda for a school board meeting at 4.30 in the afternoon in August. Trust me no-one goes to a school board meeting at 4.30 in the afternoon in August. And the board minutes show that no comments were offered and that was the basis of their consultation with the community.”

Shultz also told Doffman the consultant to performed the threat assessment is not independent, and has ties to the company, though this information has not been confirmed.

Law enforcement use of facial recognition has been at the center of several controversies related to the technology, but Doffman says: “The irony is that the public should be far more concerned about deploying advanced AI into schools than into the hands of the police. And with vendors making claims and not being held to account, we are entering dangerous territory.”

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