Student Privacy and Surveillance

Schools Face Civil Liberties Battles in Effort to Adopt Facial Recognition

As schools around the country attempt to deploy new facial recognition functionality as part of their video surveillance systems, the ACLU is challenging those efforts in the name of protecting civil rights. And they're not alone in their concerns about the controversial student surveillance tactic.

As EdTech Strategies recently reported, both Magnolia School District in Arkansas and Lockport City School District in New York recently approved purchases of camera systems that include the ability to identify people captured on camera and track them.

The Magnolia system, approved in March 2018, also allows local law enforcement to log into the system in the event of a "school situation," as reporting by the Magnolia Reporter noted.

Lockport compared the system it plans to install for the next school year to those in place at "airports, casinos and sensitive government installations," the Buffalo News reported. The school district would be the first "in the world with this technology deployed," the consultant in charge of the implementation told the newspaper. In that case, the article explained, officials can be alerted if a person whose photo has been programmed into the software shows up on the cameras.

In both scenarios, however, the American Civil Liberties Union has objected to the use of facial recognition, as have some parents. In Lockport, for example, the parent of a freshman told his board of education that while he's happy about the district's concern for the "safety for our students," he "feels the facial and shape recognition program is ineffective and too expensive." He was also concerned about the timing of the funding decision; it was scheduled during August 2016, when "many community members were either still at work or on vacation." The school pursued state funding for the $4 million project.

The ACLU has publicly come out against the installations for several reasons. They're "vulnerable to hacking and abuse," asserted the ACLU of Arkansas, and they compromise "students' privacy." The national organization stated that once somebody's facial image is captured by the technology and uploaded into the system planned for New York, the program has the ability to "go back and track that person's movements around the school" for the previous two months.

"It's easy to imagine that students will feel like they are constantly under suspicion," the ACLU said, adding that it's "notoriously" unreliable, "especially when it comes to identifying women, young people and people of color."

Of particular concern: that the databases will be used for immigration enforcement, which could "make parents of immigrant students afraid to send their children to school for fear that they or their children could end up on ICE's radar."

As Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, pointed out in a recent essay, facial recognition is a technology so "potently, uniquely danger," "so inherently toxic," it warrants being "completely rejected, banned, and stigmatized" — not just in schools, but everywhere.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.