Lockport district won't use software during security system tests

The Associated PressThis file photo from December shows Lockport City School District technology director Robert LiPuma as he stands in a doorway beneath a camera with facial recognition capabilities that was being installed in Lockport High School. On Friday, the New York State Department of Education announced that the district will move forward with testing of some system components next week, however the tests will not involve use of related software as recommended by state officials. 

A bill that would effectively ban the use of facial recognition in schools for a year to allow for further study of the issue was referred to the Ways and Means committee in the state Assembly after a Wednesday vote in the education committee, a spokesperson for Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, announced.

The bill was referred to the Ways and Means committee in a 25-4 vote.

In a prepared statement, Wallace called facial recognition software "new and untested, especially in schools."

"There are real questions about its reliability," she said. "There are real questions about who will have access to sensitive student biometric data and how that data may be used."

Wallace believes it would be prudent to have the New York State Department of Education study the issue and assess the reliability, cost and privacy risks associated with its use.

"Before rushing forward with implementation, I think it is prudent to have the state Department of Education study the issue and to assess the reliability, cost, and privacy risks associated with its use. My legislation doesn’t seek to prohibit use, it simply asks that we take a closer look before moving forward and implement guidelines to ensure student privacy will be protected," she added.

Superintendent Michelle Bradley said the district would continue to monitor the bill and "do our due diligence and continue to see how that progress."

Board President John Linderman said he is not familiar with Wallace's bill and declined to comment on the bill.

A spokesperson for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office said this past week that facial recognition needs to be further studied.

"This issue needs to be explored further as we seek to balance safety and privacy‎ of our schoolchildren, especially in respect to these new and emerging technologies to avoid issues of bias and serious concerns regarding data storage," Don Kaplan, a spokesperson for Cuomo's office wrote.

Last week, Lockport City School District administrators told the Union-Sun & Journal their intentions on Tuesday to start testing its facial recognition software. On Friday, Lockport agreed to honor a request from the New York State Education Department to delay the testing of the facial recognition software for at least the next two or more weeks. The two also agreed to meet in person and discuss the project in detail.

On Wednesday, Bradley said the two parties are working together, and will continue to do so. She did not answer whether there has been a definitive decision made on when the parties will meet.

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

The Board of Education adopted a policy this past December outlining how the Aegis system will be governed.

According to the policy, those expected to be in the database may include: students who have been suspended, staff suspended or on administrative leave, level 2 and level 3 sex offenders, any person who has been notified that they may not be on district property, anyone prohibited from entering district property by court order or anyone believed to pose a threat.