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Smells Like Teen Surveillance


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(photo: Philip Kamrass/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


Picture a student sprinting to math class, late for a test after sleeping through the alarm.  Hair disheveled, backpack open, their heart is racing. But in an instant this quintessential scene morphs into something far more dangerous as the student is faced with armed police officers, aiming their guns, demanding the student lie down on the ground.

This is the grim prospect for the students of Lockport, New York, whose school district is the latest to stumble headlong into the national surveillance debate.

In Lockport, students will no longer just be graded on their homework and exams, they’ll receive a grade from the school’s state-of-the-art surveillance boondoggle: facial recognition. Let’s be clear, facial recognition technology has no place in schools. It is expensive, invasive, and more than a little bit creepy. The newest versions claim they predict behavior, but that “suspected school shooter” is actually just an anxious kid who’s running late for a test.

Even worse, many facial recognition systems will label students as a “threat” because of their race.

The facts are clear: facial recognition is biased. The technology can be eerily accurate, but error rates are much higher for women and people of color. When one commercial product looked at members of Congress, it largely gave white representatives a pass, but falsely claimed that half a dozen of members of the Congressional Black Caucus were criminals.

Bias would be reason enough to scrap this Orwellian misadventure, but things get worse. Facial recognition fails more often for minors and people under stress. That’s right, they’re putting a racist surveillance technology that’s undermined by moody teenagers…in a high school.

And the problems don’t end there. Not only is facial recognition biased and broken, it is expensive. Lockport doled out nearly $4 million for their eight-school system. Millions that could support students, being used to surveil them instead. But the cost is more than dollars and cents; this system comes at a steep cost to student privacy. The system captures the biometric data of every person setting foot in the school, building a database that could be harnessed by law enforcement or even ICE.

Alarmingly, Lockport’s impact could extend far beyond the eight-square-mile town. Cities and states look to each other for policy innovation, copying each other on things related to “security” all the time. So long as state and federal officials allow money to be squandered this way, there will be a financial incentive for other school districts to follow Lockport’s dubious lead.

State officials must do more. In recent days, Governor Cuomo belatedly noted his “concerns” about this discriminatory surveillance net, but his comments are too little, too late. The half-hearted condemnation is particularly unconvincing in light of his past facial recognition advocacy.

Just last year, the governor rushed the roll-out of a disastrous facial recognition project on the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge that failed to detect a single face. It’s time for the governor to face the music on surveillance and call for a state-wide moratorium on facial recognition.

As a first step, we must prohibit facial recognition in schools -- it’s the very least we can do. That’s exactly what lawmakers might do in a few days when they should vote on a measure from Assemblymember Monica Wallace and State Senator Brian Kavanagh, banning biometric data collection in schools. The measure might be too late to help the students whose data was already recorded in Lockport, but we can make sure no other students have to give up their privacy and civil rights as the price of attending classes.

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Cahn is the executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a New York-based civil rights and police accountability organization. On Twitter @cahnlawny. Blum is a rising 3L at NYU School of Law and a civil rights intern at The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. On Twitter @JamesLBlum.

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