A temporary moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology in state schools is now a matter of law in New York, following the conclusion of a study that found that potential rights violations outweighed the safety benefit.
The ban is the result of a temporary moratorium placed on facial recognition technology in the state’s K-12 schools, issued in December 2020 by former governor Andrew Cuomo. The order was accompanied by the initiation of the study of the pros and cons of these systems, originally to be completed by July 2022. Parents from the Lockport City School District sued the district and New York’s state education department in 2020 to have the technology removed.
Facial recognition technology out in NY schools
Backed by the NYCLU, the Lockport parents argued that the facial recognition technology would likely be inaccurate and racially biased, leading to false flagging of innocent students. Additionally, at least one of the contractors employed in state schools (Verkada) had suffered a prior data breach involving more than 4,500 cameras.
A 2022 report from the NYCLU noted that a number of grant proposals for facial recognition technology were being approved by state boards, in apparent defiance of the moratorium. Lockport had originally spent $1.4 million on their system with the stated intention of obtaining an early warning on potential outsider mass shooters or sex offenders that might enter school grounds, promising not to enter any students into the system’s “threat database.” One of the key pieces of evidence presented by the recent 49-page report was a study finding that 70% of school shooters from 1980 to 2019 were current students at the time of the attack.
The report did not take digital fingerprinting off the table, however, noting that it presented lower risk to student rights and would be fit for specific uses such as tracking lunch payments and letting students unlock school-owned devices. The new legislation requires allows school districts to implement fingerprinting and types of biometric identification other than facial recognition technology, but they must first obtain input from parents and conduct a similar assessment of the potential impact on student rights.
In addition to misidentification of students as threats, parents and legislators expressed concern about SWAT teams being sent to schools on the basis of an innocuous object being misidentified by one of these systems as a weapon. This has become something of a documented phenomenon, with a school in Utica reverting to metal detectors and bag searches after one such system failed to detect a knife that was used in a stabbing on school grounds and a gun that was found on another student. Everyday items such as tablets and water bottles are sometimes errantly flagged as weapons, which can create an overwhelming amount of false positives.
Limitations of facial recognition technology raise questions about appropriateness for schools
In addition to potentially wasting human resources with an overwhelming tide of false positives, there are an assortment of scenarios in which facial recognition technology has proven to be useless. One is the East High School shooting that took place in Denver in March of this year, in which the perpetrator was a student who simply walked into the school with weapons at the ready and began firing immediately. Another example is the Nashville school shooting that took place shortly after, in which the perpetrator not only came in firing immediately but was also able to enter by shooting through a security door from outside the building.
Between the potential false positives, the inability to detect concealed weapons until students deploy them, and being a non-factor in preventing a determined outsider from entering the grounds with weapons, the state reached the decision that facial recognition technology’s benefits are not great enough to merit its continued presence in its schools. Some New York City Council members would like to see this ban extended further, introducing a bill to prohibit businesses from using any biometric identifier information from ID’ing customers without first obtaining their express written consent. A similar bill would ban owners of multiple-unit residential buildings from installing any biometric technology that identifies tenants.
City bans on use of facial recognition technology were a hot topic in 2020 and 2021, but have cooled since then. Prior to 2022 a number of major cities, including New Orleans and San Francisco, instituted sweeping law enforcement bans. Some states, such as California and Virginia, also put some form of state-wide ban into place. Since 2022 no other city has adopted comparable legislation, and some have rolled theirs back in the face of spikes in crime and public dissatisfaction about the effectiveness of policing. And while it has been chased out of numerous other countries at this point, Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology continues to enjoy widespread use by thousands of agencies across the country.