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Facial Rec Tech On Hold For NY Schools

School districts will have to wait before purchasing facial recognition technology in an attempt to increase school safety.

The state Legislature approved legislation authorizing MaryEllen Elia, state education commissioner, to study and report on the use of “biometric identifying technology” on school grounds in order to create a comprehensive, statewide regulatory system governing the use of such systems.

Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, sponsored the legislation. Lockport Central School has purchased a $3.8 million facial recognition system that was to have been activated in September. Michelle T. Bradley, district superintendent, told The Buffalo News earlier in June that the system will use photos of registered sex offenders from a national database and compare them with the images of people entering the schools. The district had been discussing student privacy concerns with the state Education Department.

“As you may know, several school districts have already tried to acquire, or are interested in trying to acquire or have acquired, what is colloquially known as facial recognition software that they plan to use in school districts around the state,” Wallace said last week in the floor debate on her legislation. “Right now, we don’t have any guidelines whatsoever on their use. There are a lot of questions about the reliability of that software. There are questions about how it should be used, who’s going to have access to the information and so forth. This legislation would ask the commissioner to look more deeply at the issue and to develop a unified, statewide policy on this issue.”

The legislation was approved, 128-19, by the state Assembly during its rush to finish the legislative session. Assemblyman Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, voted in favor of the moratorium while Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown, peppered Wallace with questions during the floor debate. Goodell asked what the public policy concerns are that should compel the legislature to stop using facial recognition technology, if school districts that have already spent money on facial recognition technology should be allowed to use it since the money was spent before the moratorium was passed, if the state should reimburse school districts that have purchased the equipment and if there is anything in state law that prevents the state Education Department from studying the issue and issuing guidelines.

“The question many school administrators are asking of us is shouldn’t we utilize all the tools that are available to us to maximize the security of our schools,” Goodell said. “Certainly we have no objections to digital cameras, and they’re widely used to help in school security. We have no issues with advances in technology in other ways that identify individuals. The problem with a security camera is the resolution isn’t always very good; it’s easy to confuse people. So my question is this — if you have thrown a student out or you’ve had problems, wouldn’t it be a helpful tool for a school that is concerned about security to be able to have this type of software available to identify the individual that’s trying to get into the school is one of those individuals they have serious security issues concerning?”

Wallace responded to Goodell’s question by saying facial recognition software may be as unreliable as security camera footage.

“It’s funny that you mention about the unreliability or the lack of resolution on regular videos,” Wallace said. “In fact, actually, there’s a lot of questions about how reliable facial recognition software is. There’s a lot of studies that show that it’s not that reliable. In particular it’s a lot less reliable with certain groups of people — children being one of them, women being one of them and people of color being another one of them. One of the things I’m asking the commissioner to do is look at the reliability of the particular software. It could be that some software is very, very reliable and others are not, so perhaps we should establish a threshold of reliability before we even allow these to be acquired in the first place.”

Goodell also argued that it is up to locally elected school boards to make decisions about the type of equipment that is purchased.

“I think a lot of great points have been made about the need for our state Education Department to carefully examine not only this but all emerging technologies that can improve safety and protect our students,” Goodell said. “I would encourage them to continue to do so. Unfortunately, as my colleague acknowledged, they already have that authority. The state Education Department already has the ability and the authority to make these types of reviews. In the meantime, we have elected Boards of Education in all of upstate, not in the (New York City) but the rest of the state has elected Boards of Education. Those are the people who have been entrusted by the voters to make thoughtful decisions and to make the right choices to protect the students. … I think a better approach than banning some new technology, which is what this bill would do pending a study, I think a better approach is to give due deference to our Boards of Education, and encourage them to actually try new things. Hopefully they will save kids’ lives by being able to move forward with emerging technology and, in the meantime, encourage the state Education Department to use their expertise in conjunction with information technology and their experts to help our school boards make the right decision. But I think it would be a mistake for us to pull the rug out from under all of our school boards and make it illegal for them to use emerging technology to protect the life and safety of our students.”

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