Lacking permission to use its 300 digital cameras for facial recognition, officials at the Lockport City School District came up with another idea: Use the cameras to look for guns instead.
That was their plan for this Monday, when the system was to be switched on at the district's schools.
But the State Education Department hasn't responded to the district's request to make that change, so plans to turn on the system have been canceled indefinitely, Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley told The Buffalo News.
The district isn't backing away from wanting to use its facial-recognition software for keeping track of faces. But switching to guns for now was one way Lockport hoped to start using the Aegis system. The facial recognition aspect of the $1.4 million system was blocked this summer when the Education Department raised privacy concerns. That department's concern over that hasn't changed. The department said Friday it's still reviewing Lockport's request to switch the system on to look for guns.
The district installed the system in Lockport schools last year in what is believed to be the first school use of the technology common at airports, casinos and law enforcement facilities to detect people whose entry is banned.
Tests worldwide have shown that facial recognition technology is improving, but its results still are spotty, especially for anyone who is not an adult white male.
"Our concern is that there would be personally identifiable information that would be compromised by the system," an Education Department spokeswoman said. "We have said: Don't put into place until those concerns are addressed."
Bradley said the Lockport Board of Education attempted to address that point in August, when it altered its policy by agreeing to delete photos of suspended students from the roster of people whose entry into schools is supposed to raise an alarm from the Aegis system.
Programmed into the system would be the photos of registered Level 2 and 3 sex offenders, staff members who are suspended or on administrative leave, anyone previously barred from district property by the district or a court and "anyone believed to pose a threat based on credible information presented to the district," according to the policy.
But the Education Department is still reviewing Lockport's policy change and its request to use the system to detect guns, the spokeswoman said.
Although the spokeswoman was unable to say whether gun recognition would create a problem for the Education Department, it does for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"We have grave concerns and there are still too many unanswered questions about object recognition," said Stefanie Coyle, the deputy director of the NYCLU's Education Policy Center.
"We don’t know how object recognition technology works in practice," Coyle said. "We don’t know what data will be collected and stored. We don’t know how student privacy and safety will be protected. We don’t know how accurate object recognition will be. And we don’t know what protocols for law enforcement engagement and student discipline will be in place when recognition is activated."
This fall, the district began what Bradley called the "initial implementation phase" of the system's activation. It included employee training in the system's use, connections with local law enforcement agencies to develop procedures on how to respond to the system's alarms, and adjusting camera angles for optimum results.
"The training has been completed and we have procedures we're confident (in) with law enforcement," Bradley said. "We're still testing cameras."
Robert LiPuma, the district's assessment and technology director, said many of the facial recognition cameras installed last year in Lockport High School had to be taken down during an interior renovation project this summer and then reinstalled.
Already, the entrances to all Lockport schools and the district office have been "hardened" with window film that makes it hard to see inside, security cameras, door access controls and in some cases, new walls and doors to make access to some areas more difficult.
"The project was approved twice, it's been installed, and we're close to being fully reimbursed by the state," Bradley said.
The cost of the cameras, servers and software for the Aegis system totaled about $1.4 million. That, in turn, was part of an overall security upgrade that cost $3.8 million.
"School districts receive their Smart Schools Bond Act allocations on a reimbursement basis. The funds are guaranteed once their plans are approved," the Education Department statement continued. "To date, the district has been reimbursed approximately $2.7 million of its approved SSIP, which included a wide range of more conventional investments in building security."