Facial Recognition Technology in Our Schools

By Toni Smith-Thompson

The idea of facial recognition technology conjures up scenes from books and films set in dystopian futures in which freedom and liberty have been forfeited in exchange for the illusion of security. From “1984” to “Minority Report,” these are worlds where everyone is suspect, and no one is safe.

Today, you don’t need to look to fiction to imagine these consequences. Facial recognition technology — unregulated, prone to error, and poorly understood — is being rapidly rolled out in the institutions where we should place the most trust: our schools.

In recent weeks, the NYCLU sounded the alarm after the Lockport City School District received $4 million in state funds to purchase facial recognition technology. More recently, RealNetworks announced that it is offering its facial recognition technology to any K-12 school in the country for free, claiming it’ll make schools safer.

This is a dangerous path that schools should think twice about.

We will do just about anything to protect our children. Promises of an omnipotent machine correctly identifying and stopping potential perpetrators make facial recognition technology alluring to parents and educators. And from the perspective of cash-strapped school districts, obtaining this technology for free can seem like a no-brainer.

But facial recognition technology does not make our schools safer. In fact, facial recognition technology is especially prone to sabotage: For 22 cents, you can purchase a pair of cardboard glasses to fool it.

Millions of students in the United States have invasive security measures imposed on them each day in order to attend school. Metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, pat downs and strip searches, and, now, digital scans of their faces. In order to receive an education, many students have no choice but to surrender to these measures.

But we must engage in a serious conversation about the steep costs of all of this. Out of fear, we are rushing to solutions that have real consequences for kids. Here are five of them:

Loss of Privacy

Schools should be safe environments for students to learn and play. They should be places where students can test out and practice ideas, interactions, and activities and be supported to make their own (safe) choices. Pervasive monitoring and collection of children’s most sensitive information — including their biometric data — can turn students into perpetual suspects. It exposes every aspect of a child’s life to unfair scrutiny.

False Matches

ACLU of Northern California tested Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition system by loading it with photos of members of Congress and letting it run comparisons to arrest photos. The test resulted in 28 false matches, of which nearly 40 percent were of people of color, even though they make up only 20 percent of Congress. For children, whose appearances change rapidly as they grow, the accuracy of this technology is even more questionable. False positives for a student entering school or going about their day can result in traumatic interactions with law enforcement, loss of class time, disciplinary action, and potentially a criminal record.

Discrimination

It is widely known and well documented that police stop, detain, frisk, and arrest Black and brown people at disproportionate rates. As a result, the databases that facial recognition systems search are overpopulated with people of color. In schools, facial recognition technology will necessarily mean Black and brown students, who are already more likely to be punished for perceived misbehavior, are more commonly misidentified, reinforcing the criminalization of Black and brown people. That will happen even as facial recognition algorithms get better at correctly recognizing people’s faces. As long as our law enforcement systems are poisoned by systemic racism, technology can only serve to amplify it.

Ineffectiveness

While the current call for increased safety against school shooters has fueled a wave of increased surveillance, this technology does not mitigate the risk. The vast majority of school shooters are first-time offenders and would not be included in any database to prevent them from entering a school. Indeed, perpetrators who are themselves students would easily gain access to school facilities.

Fewer Graduates

The effects of the school-to-prison pipeline are well-documented. As we have increasingly relied on law enforcement to maintain school discipline, more of our children are exposed to the criminal justice system. Kids who are arrested in school are four times as likely to drop out as their peers. Communities should be looking for ways to keep the criminal justice system out of classrooms, not bring it in-house.

Are we willing to forfeit our children’s freedom in pursuit of an illusion of security?

Normalizing mechanisms of surveillance and control catalyzes the criminalization of the school environment and could make school hallways feel more like jails. It facilitates the tracking of everyone’s movements and social interactions and reinforces the school-to-prison pipeline.

The solution is not improved technology, nor more training, higher resolution imagery, or more sophisticated artificial intelligence systems. Instead, we need to re-imagine what kind of society we want our children to inherit and what our schools must provide in order to create such a society.

For starters, we must refuse the premise that our children need to be surveilled in order to be protected. We must rethink policing and safety in schools and in our communities at large. The desire to never let anything happen to our children is strong. But we strive to protect them so they can learn, thrive, and grow into strong individuals.

If they can’t, there is nothing left worth protecting.

Toni Smith-Thompson is an Organizer NYCLU


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19 thoughts on “Facial Recognition Technology in Our Schools”

    1. Howard P

      And pose them in a particular way…particularly having the girls tilt their head to the side… good ‘lesson’ in doing what adults tell them to…

  1. Ken A

    The article says: “ACLU of Northern California tested Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition system by loading it with photos of members of Congress and letting it run comparisons to arrest photos. The test resulted in 28 false matches”

    It sounds like the article just “assumes” (and we all know what assuming does) that the 28 were never arrested.  Google comes up with 61,999 hits when I type “Congressman Arrested”, it finds 7,080 pages when I type “Republican Congressman Arrested” including from this month:

    “Republican U.S. Rep. Christopher Collins of New York was arrested Wednesday on charges of federal insider trading”

    It also finds 539 pages including the one below when I type “Democratic congressman arrested” including the one below from last year:

    “Three Democratic congressmen were arrested outside Trump Tower after protesting the president’s immigration policies”

    P.S. I was surprised that the article didn’t mention that it would be racist to muslims that did not want to show their faces or prevent friendly guys in clown costumes from coming to schools to meet kids…

  2. Tia Will

    I am seeing this in a larger context. Since 9/11, we have become a society that acts reflexively on fear. There has been one 9/11 in our lifetime and a handful of airplane highjackings  and yet we devised numerous highly ineffective means of screening everyone who boards an airplane at enormous cost in both money and time to our entire society. ( I have previously recounted my experience of being allowed to take a very large hunting knife on a plane in my carry on bag.) Because of a few school mass shootings, we decide to surveil and worse yet arm our school personnel ignoring the fact that mass shootings have happened in many settings, not just schools. While all the time claiming that the devices we should be most worried about are “not the problem”, but we are quick to say they are the solution.

    I think we should look at this from an evidence based point of view. What has actually worked. Not what is some company speculating will work playing to our fears based on no evidence.

  3. Jeff M

    Why is the ACLU against so many things that help prevent unwanted death?

    Does this death serve the ACLU agenda?  Does the ACLU have a conflict of interest in its advocacy for what it says it believes in?

    It all seems ideologically disingenuous.  Lefties are cool with government… big government… lots of rules to make sure nobody gets any unfair advantage and the collective moves as one.   And in lefty Europe there are security cameras at every vantage point.  I thought American lefties saw European lefties as the more progressive… their contemporaries… that we as Americans should be embarrassed that we are not as lefty as those more advanced Europeans?

    Why are American schools no less secure than are all government buildings housing as many people?  Try to access government offices and you will need an ID badge and have a barrier of armed guards and metal detectors.   And there will be cameras everywhere recording your every move in case you have malice in your intent.

    My sense here is that lefties in America are more embarrassed that guns have not been banned in America and are fine with more school kids “taking one for the team” so that we can get to that greater liberal goal where warm and fuzzy feelings of a utopian pursuit can be realized (before we realize that it is really a Darwinist dystopian pursuit.)   Because if not this, then lefties, including the UCLU, would embrace this and other security measures to keep our schools and children more safe.

    IMO

    1. David Greenwald

      Why is Jeff for (largely) unmitigated intrusion of government into private lives?

      What evidence do you have that this would save any lives at all?

      1. Jim Hoch

        David, I think you have it backwards. There is no proposal presented that is relevant to us to do this. The article is intended to preempt a discussion of whether it is a good and/or worthwhile idea.

        Like many of the ACLU series there is lots of irrelevant and misleading content though I have to say they seem to have dialed back the outright lies on this one. Photo recognition and facial recognition are two different things. The reference to the exercise of scanning congressional photos and using an 80% confidence match to a group of 25,000 mugshots is intentionally deceptive.

        “we must refuse the premise that our children need to be surveilled in order to be protected” This is just stupid. Schools are “surveilled” with live people and cameras and that is not going to change any time soon.

        “The vast majority of school shooters are first-time offenders and would not be included in any database to prevent them from entering a school” Also stupid on it’s face as several of the recent shooters are students that were expelled students and would be in a “stay-away” database and anyone who was not positively identified as belonging on campus could be flagged as a danger.

        I am not advocating for use of facial recognition however it may be useful in some circumstances. Not that you would have any idea from reading this article which seems to have been written by an idiot.

    2. John Hobbs

      “My sense here is that lefties in America”

      “lefties” Oh Don, why does the rabid reichwinger get a pass?

      You have no clue what anyone in America thinks save yourself and if your postings on the DV are to be believed you are rather confused about that.

      I have doubts about the FR tech since I was stopped awhile back in an airport after being keyed on by FR as someone 35 years younger and 3″taller. I do like the idea of parents, teachers and school staff being connected and keeping one another abreast of issues that might rise to violence within the school, thereby being able to be pro-active if a problem is imminent. That will require a change of culture for most schools, wherein the school staff take parents’ concerns seriously and investigates them in a timely manner. I understand that Davis’ schools are different. In Sacramento, the city district high schools treat parent concerns as annoyances.

      The other thought I have on preventing these school shootings is really a cultural issue. If you know someone has a stash of weapons and ammo (not talking about a single hunting rifle etc), you should get involved. If you can’t confiscate them, call the cops. I have to assume those who do not are willing accomplices to any mayhem those weapons may wreak. I’d like to see them charged as such.

      1. Alan Miller

        “lefties” Oh Don, why does the rabid reichwinger get a pass?

        Odd comment, since his jab is aimed at a vaguely-defined group, wheras your jab is personal and hints at Nazis.  Although he is anonymous, and I’m not sure how one insults the nonexistent.  No offense, nonexistent people.

        If you know someone has a stash of weapons and ammo (not talking about a single hunting rifle etc), you should get involved.

        I do, some in the neighborhood.   I think it’s called “legal in this country”.  Oh, two is OK?  Three?  Do they also have to be bat-sh*t crazy?

         

    3. Alan Miller

      Frankly, because you are, I’m not sure I get your point.

      You despise and distrust big government, yet you are OK with having facial-recognition technology in the hands of a government agency scanning kids at schools, to protect THE CHILDREN?!!!!????!!

  4. Eric Gelber

    Does this death serve the ACLU agenda?  Does the ACLU have a conflict of interest in its advocacy for what it says it believes in?

    Unless you have a factual basis for answering these questions in the affirmative, this is just a scurrilous smear.

    China uses facial recognition in schools for reasons that should concern conservatives. Facial recognition would be ineffective in deterring most instances of school shootings. This is just another distraction to divert attention from discussion of what would actually help: Tighter gun control.

    1. Ken A

      I hope Eric is aware that despite being legal items you can buy at most sporting goods stores (I know it is not legal to pack heat in class) most kids don’t bring guns to school, but even after decades and billions of dollars (Google war on Drugs if you don’t believe me) there are sill “illegal drugs” (that can’t legally be sold anywhere) on almost every high school campus in America every day (despite the fact that once drugs are used they are gone forever and most guns will last for over 100 years)…

      P.S. “Tighter gun control” would work about as well as another law making it even “more illegal” for kids to shoot classmates or guys in Chicago to shoot each other (since people that shoot classmates or rival gang members don’t care if they are violating one more law)…

    2. Jeff M

      I will ignore your first point as I had only posted questions.

      Facial recognition would be ineffective in deterring most instances of school shootings. This is just another distraction to divert attention from discussion of what would actually help: Tighter gun control.

      Do you have a new iPhone?  If so you can enable face-recognition to unlock it.  Someone stealing your phone would need to also steal your face if they wanted the data stored on the phone.

      Here is my perspective.  And maybe it is clouded by the fact that I am a recovering IT executive.  During my 40+ year career the first 28 were in IT, and every day I came into work beginning around 1984 there would be updates to the technology that I was responsible for managing.  Thanks to the liberals that revolutionized the computer industry with the freakin’ personal computer, I lost my dictatorial control over the mainframe and data center.  It was those first few years where I understand the attraction to bureaucratic control.  It is much easier to just set rules and tell people no when they want to go outside of the lines.  But then Bill Gates and crew screwed it all up, and I started having to learn how to navigate constantly expanding customer expectations and customer satisfaction as they now had options to send me packing for alternatives.

      But I digress.

      You cannot stop technology advances.  Facial recognition is here already.  It is adopted in many places that liberals love.

      Here is my assessment to answer your challenges and those of David.  And bear with me because it is likely to send Hobbs over the top.

      I think people with left-leaning political orientation tend to be people that lack self-control in their personality and/or behavior.  This then clouds their opinion of others they assume will be like them.  Thus they focus on banning things in the hands of all those people lacking self-control.   Conservatives in general tend to be people with greater self-control.  They project the same on others… or believe that the behaviors can be picked up with focus.   Lastly they see those lacking self-control as being responsible for their own behavior and not the objects they might use for malice.

      So liberals want to ban things and the use of things because they lack self-confidence in their own behavior around these objects, and hence they are untrustworthy of  others because they, like most people, assume that others are like them.

      Conversely, conservatives compartmentalize the objects separate from the people that would misuse them.  Conservatives would prefer that as a society we focus on the bad behavior and not ban objects and their use.  Conservatives are people with more self-control.

      A liberal will blame another for making them go off.  A conservative will tend to blame the person for not being able to exhibit self control.

      In a recent movie I watched there was a debate among friends for who was more wrong in the divorce where one spouse would eat all the cookies and thus demanded that the other spouse not buy cookies.  The other spouse liked cookies and felt like this was unfair as complying with demand would result in no cookies for anyone… so cookies were purchased.

      You opinion about who was more right or more wrong is very likely to identify your political leanings.  I have developed this view after decades of studying the opinions of both sides.

      So face recognition technology is just like all technology.  It can be misused and abused, but technology does not misuse itself.

       

      1. Cindy Pickett

        Fact Check: Jeff M is correct about the association between conservatism and greater self-control, in case anyone was inclined to dispute him. It is mediated though by perceptions of free will. The more that individuals believe in free will, the more self-control they exhibit. Conservatives believe more in free will — attributing the cause of action to the individual rather than the environment. The down side of this is that it is also harder for conservatives to recognize situational/environmental influences when they are actually there — e.g., institutional racism, sexism, etc.
        Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4500254/

        1. Jeff M

          it is also harder for conservatives to recognize situational/environmental influences when they are actually there — e.g., institutional racism, sexism, etc.

          I agree with this, but with the caveat that it is harder for liberals to admit the progress as their lack of control feelings make everything seem like a slippery slope.

          I have this opinion where racism, sexism… all the type of “isms” that liberals see as worthy of constant “awareness” should be considered largely solved when the bias is no different than that someone with freckles, red hair and/or a speech impediment would have to endure.  Or short men trying to get a date.  Bias isn’t 100% solvable and tribalism is a biological thing as our current political divide proves.

          I also see personal insecurity driving some of this.  Birds of feather flock together and affect the rest of the flock.  I can see the slippery slope of a victim mentality.  And I can feel the warm embrace of that mentality when I get knocked off the horse… but recognize it as detrimental to my well-being.  I have been told that I have white privilege, and the only thing I can agree with related to that is that I don’t have a marginalized group narrative to fall back on… thus I have no choice but to get back on the horse again.

          Back to the topic at hand.  K-12 is almost like prison anyway.  I say lock-up and lock-down the kids.  Put in guards and security systems.   Keep them safe as a priority because their real life does not really start until they are out of that prison.

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