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Facial Recognition Risks May Outweigh Benefits in Schools

New York state’s Office of Information Technology Services issued a report last week, following a state law that banned biometric identifying technology in schools. A decision about the tech will be made in the coming weeks.

A New York State report says the risks of using facial recognition technology in schools may outweigh the benefits.

Jim Schultz, a Lockport parent who raised the alarm when he learned the school district was going to use the technology, takes it a step farther.

"You'd have to have a hole in your head to think this is a good idea," he told The Buffalo News.

The Lockport City School District turned off its controversial facial recognition program at the end of 2020, when a law prohibiting the technology went into effect.

Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D- Lancaster, sponsored the law that banned biometric identifying technology in schools until the state prepared a report on the technology and the issues connected with it.

That report was released last week. State Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa is expected to determine in the next few weeks whether to allow the purchase of biometric identifying technology in public schools.

The technology is defined as "any tool using an automated or semi-automated process that assists in verifying a person's identity based on a person's biometric information."

That can include fingerprints, retina and iris patterns, voiceprints, DNA sequence, facial characteristics and handwriting.

"I feel like the report validated a lot of the concerns I had raised," Wallace said, listing privacy, civil rights, false positives and cybersecurity among her concerns.

The report, by the state Office of Information Technology Services, said the office "acknowledges that the risks of the use of FRT (facial recognition technology) in an educational setting may outweigh the benefits."

Risks are likely lower for administrative uses of the technology, and there likely are fewer risks of digital fingerprinting, according to the report.

"Given the potentially higher rate of false positives for people of color, non-binary and transgender people, women, the elderly, and children, the use of FRT in schools for security purposes may implicate civil rights laws," according to the report.

There is the potential for enormous invasion of privacy, said Beth Haroules, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union who challenged Lockport's program on behalf of several parents.

"The language in the report certainly suggests this technology has no place in a school setting and should not be deployed," Haroules said.

"If authorized, schools may need to exercise caution with the use of FRT to ensure that vulnerable populations are not disproportionately impacted," the report said.

The Civil Liberties Union took the state Education Department to court in 2020 on behalf of Schultz and three other parents who opposed the system. A State Supreme Court judge ruled in September 2021 that the lawsuit was moot, because state law prohibited the technology.

Lockport's system, which included 300 cameras in 10 district buildings, was turned on Jan. 2, 2020, but it was switched off when then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the law Dec. 22, 2020, making facial recognition technology illegal in schools pending the state study.

"This to me was just malpractice in terms of the lack of any serious analysis before the expenditure of money," Schultz said of Lockport deploying the system.

Lockport Central Schools Superintendent Mathis Calvin III said the district is reviewing the new report.

"At this time, we have no plans to move forward with utilizing biometric identifying technology in our schools," Calvin said.

The state Education Department said in a statement that "the state education commissioner will consider the report and its recommendations in determining whether to authorize the purchase or utilization of biometric identifying technology in public schools."

(c)2023 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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