NYCLU suing state education officials over Lockport surveillance system decision

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By CONNOR HOFFMAN

Lockport Journal

New York Civil Liberties Union is taking the state education department to court over its approval of Lockport City School District’s facial and object recognition-based surveillance system.

Its lawsuit, filed Monday in Albany State Supreme Court, challenges the state’s decision to allow Lockport’s system to be activated.

NYCLU argues that Lockport’s system, powered by the Aegis software suit, violates the state education privacy laws in that the system does use student data, and that the New York State Education Department is wrong when it’s arguing the system doesn’t use student data. NYSED and Lockport have argued that by not having students eligible to be in a database of unwanted persons that this means no student data is used, but NYCLU argues student data is used to verify someone is not in the database. 

“NYSED’s approval of this technology demonstrated a dangerous lack of oversight and an alarming misunderstanding of the way it analyzes student data,” Stefanie Coyle, deputy director of the Education Policy Center at NYCLU, said. “It’s NYSED’s responsibility to protect students and provide expert-level oversight statewide, and it abdicated that responsibility with this decision. Facial recognition surveillance is intrusive, biased, and inaccurate, and it has no place in schools.”

The plaintiffs in the suit are Lockport residents: Jim Shultz, a frequent and vocal critic of the surveillance system, and newly elected school Trustee Renee Cheatham.

“Being spied on by high-tech surveillance should never be the price of going to school, not in Lockport, not anywhere,” Shultz said Monday.

In her affidavit, Cheatham, an African American woman, expressed concern in the inaccuracies and racial bias that facial recognition technology is reported to have. She further adds that the money spent on Aegis and the cameras could have been better spent on learning technology. 

“I am witnessing today the impact placed on the Lockport students who do not have the types of home technological resources Lockport could have put into place with Smart School Bond Act grant funding. The coronavirus is exposing the true digital divide that exists here in Lockport: the gap between students and their families who have speedy, modern-day internet connections and those who do not. Many families in Lockport do not have wi-fi and internet connection,” Cheatham says in the affidavit.

“They are not able to connect to the teachers now that schools have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. And many students do not have a dedicated device at home to do their work in the first place; they don’t have chrome books or iPads to complete their assignments. These technological deficits are setting these students up for failure. My heart aches for these children, who day by day, become more disconnected from their school communities and lose critical social and emotional support and academic instruction.” 

Last week, in a separate matter, NYCLU sued the state education department for failure to respond to its Freedom of Information Law request for information about Lockport’s surveillance system and its approval.

NYCLU argues that students’ faces are being continuously scanned by the system to see whether they match any of the photos in the school’s “Hot List” of people not allowed on school grounds. The data from the system is maintained for at least 60 days, according to the district’s policy, and there are several carve-outs that allow for the images to be stored for a longer period.

NYCLU argues there’s a risk that students, parents or staff will be misidentified as Hot List subjects — and that the stored information could be accessed by hackers.

“Despite district claims that the system will not catalog students, the technology and nature of the data collected do not allow for students to remain anonymous. The software is also inaccurate and is especially likely to misidentify women, young people, and people of color, disproportionately exposing them to the risks of misidentification and law enforcement,” NYCLU senior staff attorney Beth Haroules said.

“Face surveillance systems infringe on the privacy rights of students and raise the specter of schools sharing personally identifiable information with law enforcement or federal immigration authorities like ICE,” Haroules added.

NYCLU attorneys on the case include Haroules, Coyle, Molly Biklen and Lourdes Rosado.

Lockport administrators had announced their intentions to begin testing the Aegis system in late May 2019 and were told by the state education department to not use the system while privacy concerns lingered. After months of back and forth with the state, the Lockport school board changed its system use policy and removed students from the list of persons eligible for inclusion in the Aegis database of individuals whose presence on school property would trigger an alert.

NYSED approved of the policy revision and signed off on the district’s use of the system in November. The district activated the system on Jan. 2.

The school district used $1.4 million of the $4.2 million allocated to it through New York’s Smart Schools Bond Act to acquire and install one of the first facial and object recognition security systems in an American school. The system relies on the Aegis software suite created by Canadian-based SN Technologies. The facial recognition software works by using a database of flagged individuals and sending an alert to district personnel when a flagged person is detected on school property. The object recognition feature would reportedly detect 10 types of guns and alert certain district personnel, as well as law enforcement, if a weapon is detected.

A spokesperson for the state education department did immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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Judy Patrick is vice president for editorial development for the New York Press Association. Before her tenure at NYPA, was was editor of the Schenectady-based Daily Gazette, where she worked for nearly 37 years. She lives in Washington County, New York, and is an avid hiker.