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Keeping Schools Free of Invasive Surveillance
Photo by Donna Aceto


Keeping Schools Free of Invasive Surveillance

The movement toward facial recognition technology and biometric surveillance is an increasing threat to New Yorkers’ civil rights and liberties. Students, who are already subject to invasive security measures at school, from metal detectors to physical searches, are also at risk from the negative impact of the surveillance state. The addition of facial recognition technology criminalizes the learning environment by turning every student into a suspect and reinforcing racially biased punishments with potential long-term consequences.

These experimental technologies are error-prone and ineffective, and there is far too little oversight. They are notoriously rife with false positives, especially among women, young people, and Black and Brown people, who are then at risk of traumatic interactions with law enforcement if an armed response is mistakenly triggered. This unethical monitoring of young New Yorkers is an oppressive invasion of their privacy, and it feeds the school-to-prison pipeline as students are inappropriately exposed to the criminal justice system.

The NYCLU has prioritized this issue ever since the Lockport City School District spent $1.4 million in state funds acquired via the Smart Schools Bond Act to purchase facial and object recognition technology in 2018. The software scans faces to see if they match a “Hot List” of flagged people not permitted on campus, and it allows for the storage of data that could be vulnerable to hackers and potentially shared with law enforcement or ICE. It misidentifies Black people—Black women, in particular—at a higher rate and has been shown to mistake objects like broom handles for guns.

The district turned on its system in early 2020 after the New York State Education Department sanctioned it and despite concerns about data collection and sharing. The NYCLU sent a letter to the NYSED in early 2020 arguing against its use because it violated student data protection laws, and we’ve repeatedly asked the Smart Schools Review Board to stop approving these proposals. In April, the NYSED changed its policy to no longer allow SSBA funding to be used for surveillance tools, and we filed a lawsuit against the department in June to force Lockport to deactivate its facial recognition system.

Education departments now spend several billion dollars a year on security systems, and Big Tech is primed to further exploit the fears of parents and administrators. Despite serious concerns, the Lockport initiative threatens to spread across the state—nearly a dozen other school districts are already seeking state money for similar equipment, which makes schools scarier, not safer. This type of tech has no place in classrooms, hallways, and quads. Safety in schools cannot be bought by surveillance. The NYCLU stands prepared to forcefully push back against these draconian measures on behalf of New York students, parents, and school staff so that we can maintain a school environment focused on learning.

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Additionally, the state legislature passed an NYCLU-backed bill in July that imposes a two-year moratorium on biometric identification technologies in schools until its use and impact can be fully studied. Read our statement about this legislation and learn more about our other efforts to protect the lives and privacy of students.