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Editorial: New security measures in Lockport schools go too far

When our rights to privacy are compromised, usually they are chipped away so gradually that we scarcely notice, like the fable of the frog in a pot of water who is oblivious to the rising temperature. That’s not the case in the Lockport City School District.

Lockport schools are spending $2.75 million on surveillance cameras and facial recognition software in an effort to make 10 school buildings more secure. The district already has cameras in its buildings, but plans to install 300 new ones, plus software that scans faces to try to identify potential bad actors.

There’s nothing gradual about that kind of expenditure, nor the leap into “Big Brother is watching” territory. The question must be asked whether that’s a wise investment of grant money the district received from the state.

In the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., the Lockport district in 2013 brought in a security consultant, Tony Olivo of Orchard Park. Olivo recommended a facial recognition software system called Aegis, developed by SN Technologies of Gananoque, Ont.

The district is funding the security upgrades with $4 million it received through the state’s Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014, a program for helping schools improve their educational technology and infrastructure.

The Lockport plan was brought into focus this week when the New York Civil Liberties Union asked the state Education Department to reverse its approval of the project. Officials should at least give the idea a hearing.

The Lockport security plan gives us pause on several counts:

  • The cost: Spending $2.75 million of the $4 million bond funding on a high-tech security system is extravagant. Lockport parent Jim Shultz, a critic of the plan, says that it would be cheaper and more effective to “harden” the entrances to schools. It would make sense to start with simpler solutions like that.
  • Reliability: The Aegis system is similar to one that’s been used by Scotland Yard, but no facial recognition products are foolproof. Studies have shown they are less effective when it comes to identifying people of color as well as women and children. The system has no X-ray ability, so it would spot guns only if the guns were visible.
  • Privacy: John A. Curr III, the NYCLU western region director, said the Lockport plan needs more scrutiny due to “its privacy implications and other civil liberties concerns.” The NYCLU says the cameras could record the movements of everyone in the school and upload their faces to a database. A person in a public school doesn’t have the same expectation of privacy as she does at home or in an office, but the constant electronic scrutiny of everyone in Lockport’s school buildings sounds like an unwarranted leap.
  • Efficacy: The Safe Schools Initiative, a collaboration between the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, issued a report that found that 95 percent of attackers in “targeted school-based violence” were current students of the school. Facial recognition software, programmed to recognize criminals, registered sex offenders, noncustodial parents and expelled students, would not trigger any alarms in those cases.
  • Optics: Olivo, the security consultant, is listed as a business partner of SN Technologies on the company’s website. That raises a legitimate question about his independence in introducing the Aegis system to the district.

Concerns about safety and security in schools are all too real these days, but paying top dollar for the latest technology does not seem like a wise use of grant funds that are supposed to enhance classroom performance.

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