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.
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.
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.
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.
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