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Lockport schools push to activate contentious facial recognition security system

Studies and local critics question its effectiveness. The State Education Department won't let it be turned on. And the State Legislature came close to banning it.

But the Lockport City School District continues to push to activate a facial recognition security system it installed last year in its 10 school buildings.

"We believe it does provide another layer of security for our students. We firmly believe in that," Board of Education President John A. Linderman said.

"We have technology that will make our schools safer," said Robert LiPuma, Lockport's director of assessment and technology. "God forbid, if anything really catastrophic happened, we would have a system in place that we have some confidence level that it's going to make a positive difference. We have that installed now … and we want to use it for our community."

The Education Department, which originally approved the use of state Smart Schools Bond Act money to pay for the system, later blocked its use.

Wednesday night, the Board of Education, in its latest effort to win the state's approval to use the $2.75 million system, decided that photographs of suspended students will not be programmed into it.

Such students were to have been one of the categories of banned individuals whose presence, if detected by the 300 digital cameras the district installed last year, would trigger an alarm to local police and a small group of administrators.

"We understand the privacy concerns. We continue to work with State Ed," Linderman said. "We've modified our policy to address their concerns … to come up with a policy they feel is acceptable."

But Linderman said the Education Department has not promised to approve the system if the policies are changed.

In late June the Education Department ordered Lockport not to proceed with testing to adjust the cameras and make sure the technology functions as expected before full activation occurs.

"We are still working with the State Education Department on moving forward with the initial implementation phase of the system," Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley said in an email.

The Education Department was concerned about student privacy.

So is Jim Shultz, whose daughter attends Lockport High School. He's been beating the drum against the facial recognition system for nearly two years. He wrote a commentary opposing Lockport's plans that was published on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

"On the privacy issue, the school district still doesn't get it," Shultz told The Buffalo News. "The privacy issue isn't about suspended students being put into the system. The problem is every single student in the school is going to be recorded by a system that can be used retroactively, if the district chooses, to trace all their movements, all their associations. That's what makes this system such a profound experiment in privacy violation."

Accuracy claims

Lockport bought the Aegis system from SN Technologies, an Ontario company. It developed software which, its creators say, is more effective than anything else in the facial recognition field.

The Lockport district had been working with the company as far back as 2015, when the software creators were allowed to use Lockport High School for test videos using various types of guns.

Tony Olivo, the Orchard Park security consultant who helped convince Lockport to buy the resulting package, said Thursday that the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology has tested the Aegis system and found it 99.9999743% accurate in identifying images.

NIST spokeswoman Jennifer Huergo said Thursday that NIST's accuracy figure for Aegis is between 98% and 99%.

A NIST report issued July 31 rated Aegis' algorithms between 74th and 100th best out of 139 facial recognition systems tested, depending on what types of photos were used in the tests.

Although earlier studies of facial recognition software showed it didn't work well on women, children and people of color, a NIST report issued in November that examined 127 software packages from 45 different developers explored only the problem of people aging beyond the look of their last photograph in the database.

That's especially important with children, whose facial bone structure may change rapidly, causing the worst results in photos of young children, the New York Times reported last week.

Huergo said a new NIST report on the cause of the demographic problems with facial recognition systems is expected this fall.

Olivo said the Aegis system analyzes video on the fly, not still images, and systems that haven't done well in real-world tests are not as advanced as SN Technologies' package.

"I understand the problems with some of these technologies that are out there, but we're not comparing apples to apples," Olivo said. "It's like saying Ford Pintos blow up, so a GMC Yukon is not a good vehicle."

Critic: 'A $2.7 million boondoggle'

"The bottom line is, this system is a $2.7 million boondoggle that never had the potential to keep students safer," Shultz said. "The idea that we're going to know in advance who a school shooter will be and he won't put on a mask or in some other way thwart the camera system and we will find out so far in advance that we'll be able to stop him, that's just all a myth."

Shultz said it would have been smarter for Lockport to have a security assessment done by a professional who didn't stand to benefit financially from the results, and then design a system to respond to its vulnerabilities.

Bradley and LiPima said Lockport has been struggling with what they called false claims by opponents, such as the assertions that the system would collect students' biometric data, that it would be used for student discipline and that data would be sent to immigration authorities.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which has consistently opposed Lockport's plans, on Thursday released its latest letter to the Education Department criticizing the use of the facial recognition system and asking for a moratorium on the technology's use.

"Despite nine months of revisions, the district’s revised facial recognition policy is still deeply flawed and puts students’ privacy and civil rights at risk," said Stefanie Coyle, education counsel for the NYCLU.

"The policy still provides the district full discretion of who can be placed in the database, including students, and offers minimal safeguards on how long that data can be stored and with whom it can be shared. There is no policy that will sufficiently address the inherent issues with facial recognition, and the State Education Department must issue an immediate ban on its use on students in schools," Coyle said.

NY may ban facial recognition in schools

San Francisco has barred its police department from using facial recognition software, as have Oakland, Calif., and Somerville, Mass. Officials in Cambridge, Mass., are considering a ban.

So is the New York State Legislature. The Assembly passed a bill at the end of the session in June, sponsored by Monica P. Wallace, D-Lancaster, that would have imposed a three-year moratorium on the use of facial recognition systems in schools until the Education Department could complete a study on the topic. The Senate adjourned before voting on the measure.

Wallace's spokesman, Patrick Kennedy, said Thursday the bill will be reintroduced next year.

"We're continuing to monitor how that plays out," Bradley said. "Maybe Lockport could be looked at differently in that legislation, seeing as how the project has been approved (for funding) and has been installed in our school system."

Linderman said Lockport already has received some partial reimbursements.

"The state has not said it's not going to reimburse us," Linderman said.

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