U.S. schools eye facial recognition technology but acknowledge it won't stop attackers
Facial recognition technology soon will check each face against a database of expelled students, sex offenders and other possible troublemakers.
It could be the start of a trend as more schools fearful of shootings consider adopting the technology, which has been gaining ground on city streets and in some businesses and government agencies. Just last week, Seattle-based digital software company RealNetworks began offering a free version of its facial recognition system to schools nationwide.
Already, the Lockport City School District's plan has opened a debate in this western New York community and far beyond about the system's potential effectiveness, student privacy and civil rights.
"We shake our heads that we're having to deal with and talk about these kinds of security issues," said Robert LiPuma, technology director for the Lockport district, east of Niagara Falls, "but here we are."
The idea behind the Lockport system is to enable security officers to quickly respond to the appearance of expelled students, disgruntled employees, sex offenders or certain weapons the system is programmed to detect. Only students seen as threats will be loaded into the database.
Officials say it is the first school district in the country to adopt the Canadian-made system it is installing.
Administrators say it could thwart shootings like February's attack in which expelled student Nikolas Cruz is charged with killing 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Critics say the technology has been absent from schools for good reason.
In light of Lockport's plans, the New York Civil Liberties Union asked the state Education Department to block the technology from any New York school, saying it would "have a chilling effect on school climate."
Education officials say they are reviewing the request.
"Lockport is sending the message that it views students as potential criminals who must have their faces scanned wherever they go," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said.
Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said any school considering facial recognition must consider who will have access to data, how such a system would be managed and whether students can opt out.
Others question the technology's cost and effectiveness, given reports like one released in February by MIT and Stanford University that found some facial recognition programs don't work as well on racial minorities and women.
District officials say the Aegis system they are installing, made by SN Technologies of Ontario, will not build or store a database of student and faculty face prints that could be shared with the government or marketers. Nor will the $1.4 million cost, funded through a state technology bond, siphon funding from staffing or supplies.
District officials acknowledge it won't stop a determined attacker from coming through the door, nor will it warn against someone who is not a known threat. ■