we’d love to hear from you! take our short survey >
Stylized image of circuit board with an person's face hidden/anonymized.

Strategic Initiatives – Protect Privacy & Autonomy

Banning Facial Recognition Technology in New York Schools

Our right to privacy is perpetually under attack from new technologies. Law enforcement surveillance of activists and protestors, cell-phone spying, the use of drones and facial recognition software without sufficient public transparency and oversight—all this advancing tech can have a radical impact on the safety and autonomy of New Yorkers. Inevitably, communities of color that already suffer from rampant discrimination end up disproportionately targeted. The NYCLU strives to stay ahead of these innovations by establishing protections against the warrantless collection of sensitive information, including biometric data such as facial or voice recognition, by private companies and government agencies and by advocating for New Yorkers to retain control over who has access to their data.

After five years of concerted effort, we finally achieved a huge victory for the privacy and safety of the state’s students in September when the New York State Education Department (NYSED) Commissioner banned the purchase or use of facial recognition technology (FRT) in New York schools. This ban is the first of its kind in the country. Real-time facial recognition surveillance is dangerously intrusive with scant oversight, and there is the risk of schools sharing personally identifiable information with law enforcement or federal immigration authorities. The NYCLU-led effort launched in 2018 when a school in Lockport spent $4 million on an FRT system, and we publicly pressured the NYSED over concerns about inaccuracy, racial bias, privacy, transparency, and data security issues. Despite this, the department authorized activation of the system and it went live in January 2020. surveilling more than 4,000 students in Lockport City Schools—including children as young as five years old. We sued the NYSED on behalf of four parents, alleging that the agency’s decision violated student data protection laws and asking for the system to be deactivated. With the support of a NYCLU-led coalition of more than 100 state and national organizations, the state legislature then passed A6787/S5140, the first statewide law in the country prohibiting the use of biometric identifying technology in schools, which includes facial recognition systems, until NYSED could commission an independent study on the risks and benefits of this technology in public schools.

Governor Cuomo signed the bill in December 2020, enacting a section of the New York State Technology Law that imposed a moratorium on the purchase or use of biometric identifying technology in all public and nonpublic schools until the Office of Information Technology Services, in partnership with NYSED, issued a report on its risks and benefits. That report, issued in August 2023, acknowledged that the risks of using FRT in an educational setting outweigh the benefits, and the Lockport City School District pledged not to use it. The education commissioner formally banned it shortly thereafter.

This important win for student privacy is a testament to the NYCLU’s integrated advocacy strategies, which involved the youth programs team organizing a key town hall and a youth-led week of action; the communications team keeping the issue alive in the press and the public eye; and the policy team rallying organizations to the cause and informing legislators about the issue.

These FRT systems criminalize students rather than make them feel safe to focus on their education, and the landmark prohibition order sets a precedent that could be replicated in other states across the country. We must now make sure the ban is enforced as we continue our work to keep other types of harmful surveillance out of New York schools.

< Back to Strategic Initiatives

Throughout the year, we also submitted testimony to the state Assembly on the impact of AI on the workforce and advocated for bias audits of automated or algorithmic tools used in the hiring process.

Read more about our many efforts to protect civil liberties in the face of increasingly-invasive technological innovation.

Banner Design by Artist Ambassador Jessie Mahon, @jessiemahon_