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Administrators and Parents Face Off Over New Facial Recognition Technology

LUCAS WOODS, HOST: In upstate New York, the Lockport School District says it’s the first in the state to use facial recognition technology to protect its students. The system scans the faces of anyone entering the school, and matches them against a broad database including known sex offenders, and anyone suspected of posing a possible threat. But some parents in Lockport oppose the new technology. Cecily Mauran has the story.

CECILY MAURAN, BYLINE: Lockport is about half an hour from Niagara Falls. It's the kind of place where the issues people normally talk about on the city’s community Facebook page are local restaurant reviews and potholes. But more recently, residents are talking about the new technology that’s been installed in schools. Jim Schultz has a daughter who is a junior at Lockport High School.

JIM SCHULTZ: So my first reaction was this is a real waste of money. It was only later that I began to understand the privacy implications of it.

MAURAN: The Lockport School District is planning to spend around 2 million dollars on the project from a state fund called Smart Cities Initiative. But Schultz isn’t just angry about the money, he’s also concerned about privacy for students like his daughter.

SCHULTZ: This is a system that has the technology capacity to retroactively go back for as long as the recordings exist and track the movements and the associations of every single student in the school.

MAURAN: Michelle Bradley, is Lockport district superintendent. She says the schools are taking strict measures to protect student privacy.

MICHELLE BRADLEY: We don’t have student images, per district policy, in the database for facial recognition.

MAURAN: And Bradley says the new technology is just one small part of what the school is doing to keep students safe. Like hardening the doors and increasing mental health programs.

BRADLEY: School psychologists, school counselors, social workers. So that provides a broader perspective of what we’re doing in Lockport.

MAURAN: Albert Fox Cahn is with the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, or, STOP. A non profit that advocates for privacy. He says there’s a problem with scanning the faces of kids, especially at school.

ALBERT FOX CAHN: You know, one of the most important things in an open community is the ability to simply engage in academic and intellectual exploration.

MAURAN: Cahn says it’s the very feeling of being recorded that might make students second guess what they do and how they act. Like checking a book out of the library that they’re embarrassed about...

CAHN: Or the student who wants to go to a student club that promotes a religious identity or a student group for LGBTQ students or any number of other very private facets of life.

MAURAN: Cahn also says there’s another problem. Facial recognition technology doesn't always correctly identify people of color, women, and small children. Some state legislators are working to regulate the way the technology is used in schools. For the time being, Lockport schools say facial recognition is necessary to keep kids safe. Cecily Mauran, Columbia Radio News.


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