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NYCLU tries to block Lockport schools' facial recognition project

The New York Civil Liberties Union has asked New York State education officials to revoke funding for a project to install facial recognition software in Lockport schools.

The organization contends the Lockport school district's plan endangers the rights of students and teachers.

In a letter Monday, the NYCLU asked the state Education Department to cancel its approval of the $2.75 million project.

"It is alarming that Lockport's proposal for use of facial recognition technology was not subject to further scrutiny due to its privacy implications and other civil liberties concerns," wrote John A. Curr III, NYCLU western region director, and Stefanie D. Coyle, education counsel, to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

By the time school reopens in September, some 300 new surveillance cameras are to be installed in 10 Lockport City School District buildings, along with software that the vendor, SN Technologies of Canada, says will match the faces seen by the cameras to lists of criminals, sex offenders and other barred people. District officials have mentioned noncustodial parents and suspended or expelled students as others whose facial images could be included in the software.

When the software makes a match, an alarm is to be sent automatically to district officials and perhaps to police, who can use the information to track down the intruder.

"The data currently recorded by the District’s security cameras must be manually reviewed, and its use is largely limited to responding to incidents that have already occurred," Lockport School Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley said in an email to The Buffalo News.

Critics like Jim Shultz, the father of a Lockport High School student, contend the response time will be only a few seconds faster. Shultz said it would be cheaper and more effective to harden the entrances to schools to make it harder for intruders to enter in the first place.

The district is spending $2.75 million on the cameras and software from SN Technologies' Aegis system.

The funding came from the state's Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014. Most districts used their allocations on classroom technology, but Lockport officials said they already had used the district's money on the tech upgrades they needed, so they opted for a high-tech security system instead.

"The district continues to be convinced that the installation of the Aegis program constitutes a wise use of a portion of the District’s SSBA funds, and that the program will greatly enhance the District’s ability to prevent threats to welfare and safety," Bradley wrote.

The NYCLU also submitted a 22-point Freedom of Information request for all financial records pertaining to Lockport's security system, as well as information about who would have access to the cameras' images.

Spokespeople for the NYCLU and the Education Department were unable to say Monday whether it would be legal for the funding approval to be revoked, although the letter to Elia notes that Lockport has not yet been paid the money for which its project was approved.

Tony Olivo of Orchard Park, the district's security consultant, listed by SN Technologies' website as a business partner, told The Buffalo News in May that the software will detect the presence of a person whose photo is in the database of banned individuals 99.97 percent of the time, if there are enough digital surveillance cameras to get an accurate image.

Facial recognition software doesn't always work. Studies have shown it works best on faces of white males, and doesn't work well on women, people of color or children.

The NYCLU asserted that the cameras would be able to compile a record of the movements of everyone in the school and upload their faces to a database.

"Schools should be safe places for students to learn, not spaces where they are constantly surveilled," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. "Lockport is sending the message that it views students as potential criminals who must have their faces scanned wherever they go. This will have a chilling effect on school climate throughout the district and sow distrust between students and school officials."

"The Aegis program will not retain any of the security camera data unless an alert is triggered, and only then data relevant to the alert will be retained for a very limited period of time," Bradley wrote. "Instead, just as currently, all data recorded by the District’s security cameras will ultimately be transmitted to a District-maintained server and stored for 60 days.

"The Aegis program will not change the nature, scope or storage of the data recorded by the District’s security cameras, and once Aegis is fully implemented no third party vendor will have access to that data. Aegis is simply a tool to better use security camera data to try to prevent threats to the safety and welfare of the District’s students, staff and visitors," Bradley wrote.

The Depew Central School District also has submitted a request for $188,000 to buy Aegis' system with Smart Schools money. Superintendent Jeffrey R. Rabey told The News last month the cameras also could be used to gather evidence of students' movements and contacts for disciplinary purposes.

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