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Lockport Schools Facial Recognition Bid Was Legal: Audit

A New York state audit found that the school district’s decision to award a contract for a now-illegal facial recognition security system without competitive bidding was legal, despite its lack of transparency.

(TNS) — The Lockport City, N.Y., School District didn't break the law when it awarded a contract for a now-illegal facial recognition security system without competitive bidding, a state audit said Wednesday.

But the district's tactics, which included allowing only one day to submit hardware proposals in a manner that only one company could have responded to, were not as transparent as they should have been, the State Comptroller's Office said.

Its audit was announced in March 2021, a month after Jim Shultz, a Lockport parent and staunch critic of the security system, asked for it.

In a response letter, Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley and Board of Education President Karen Young said the purchase "was in the district's best interests, and was obtained under fair and reasonable terms."

Previously, the state reimbursed Lockport $4.27 million for the security system, which included about 300 digital cameras to scan the faces of everyone entering district buildings and try to match them to a watch list of sex offenders and other persons banned from the schools.

District officials also said the cameras could detect weapons, but only if they were visible. The system had no X-ray capability.

"They spent $2.7 million on facial cameras without ever doing any kind of serious analysis as to whether it was a smart thing to do," Shultz said Wednesday. "They didn't engage in a competitive bidding process, although they they pretended to."

The audit also criticized Lockport for a lack of competition in professional services contracts and some purchases of goods by "piggybacking" on other districts' contracts. But both practices are allowed by state law.

"The District is pleased that following your staff's extensive review of aspects of the District's fiscal operations, there was not a single identified instance of financial irregularity," the Bradley-Young letter told the Comptroller's Office.

The districtwide security system was activated in January 2020. But in December 2020, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law banning facial recognition security systems from New York schools.

Studies of such systems around the world have shown that the technology works well only for adult white males and is more prone to produce false matches when the subjects are females, children or people of color.

The law prohibits the Education Department from approving any facial recognition system until July 1, 2022, or when it completes a report on the system's impact on civil liberties, whichever is later.

Lockport's system, now switched off, also was supposed to detect guns being brought into the schools.

In 2016, the Lockport Board of Education hired a technology consultant, Tony Olivo of Orchard Park, to help it research and select a facial recognition security system.

The consultant issued a request for information from vendors on June 16, 2016, but responses were due only four days later, the state audit said.

The consultant told the district that vendors told him they would need time to develop software for such a system, or that the cost would exceed Lockport's budget. However, the audit said, the district had no written proof of that statement.

In June 2017, the district entered into a facial recognition software licensing agreement for a high school security system, choosing the AEGIS system produced by SN Technologies, an Ontario company. The district wasn't required to seek competitive bids, and it didn't, the audit said.

At the time, SN Technologies' website listed Olivo's company as a partner firm.

Two months later, the district issued a request for proposals for hardware for the security system and gave vendors one day to respond. SN Technologies was the only respondent.

"Seeking competition for the initial facial/object recognition software may have provided for a more transparent procurement process," the auditors wrote.

The security system was activated at Lockport High School that fall.

In February 2018, the Board of Education passed a resolution to standardize the software, requiring bidders to use the AEGIS software in bids for security gear at all other Lockport schools. That in effect ruled out all other vendors, said the audit, which called the resolution "inaccurate and misleading" because it said there had been a competitive process to select the software vendor.

"The District was fully justified in using a standardization approach to the procurement of its enhanced security system, given that the system was already operating in the High School, that District officials were already familiar with and satisfied by its operation, and that further implementing the enhanced security system District-wide was the most efficient and economical approach forward in order to protect the safety of District students, staff and visitors," the Bradley-Young letter said.


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