Robert Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association,...

Robert Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, said he "would be cautious going forward until the technology improves." Credit: James Escher

Risks associated with using facial recognition technology in schools likely outweigh the benefits of the biometrics tool, and educators should be cautious about its use, a report from the state’s Office of Information Technology Services found.

The report, produced with assistance from the state’s Education Department and released earlier this month, examined the use of “biometric identifying technology” — where physical characteristics, including facial recognition and fingerprints, can be used in schools whether for security, administrative or classroom purposes.

The state's education commissioner, Betty A. Rosa, will consider the report and its recommendations in determining whether to authorize the purchase or utilization of the technology in public schools. A determination will be made within the next few weeks, the Education Department said.

Long Island educators are skeptical about the technology being used here on students.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Risks associated with using facial recognition technology in schools likely outweigh the benefits of the biometrics tool, and educators should be cautious about its use, a recent report found.
  • The state Education Commissioner will consider the report and its recommendations in determining whether to authorize the purchase or utilization of biometric identifying technology in public schools.
  • Long Island educators remain skeptical that the technology would be employed in connection with students.

“Biometric scans could be beneficial if [schools] are trying to keep track of staff in and out of a building or for automated processes like payroll, but when it comes to safety and security, facial recognition for students and managing the security of the building, I share many of the same concerns that the report detailed. And I would be cautious going forward until the technology improves,” said Robert Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.

The use of facial- and object-recognition technology in schools came under scrutiny in 2020 when the Lockport City district in western New York used it in security cameras. Then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law imposing a moratorium on the system while the state studied its impact.

The Office of Information Technology Services gathered feedback from teachers, school administrators and parents, along with individuals with expertise in school safety, data privacy, civil liberties and civil rights, for more than a year to produce the report.

Facial recognition technology can identify or confirm a person's identity using their face via security cameras. That identity can be matched against a database of stored images. The technology has been used or considered in school systems elsewhere around the country, including in Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kansas, according to news reports.

At a state public hearing in October, proponents said the technology can be used as a safety tool, with one official from a security group saying it can help security staff screen visitors against a list of people prohibited from entering the building.

A survey included in the report found that the majority of respondents — mainly school representatives — said there are no benefits or that the risks outweigh the benefits of using biometric technology. Many said they did not see specific situations in which biometric technology should be allowed in schools.

Shawn Kaplan, associate professor of philosophy and director of the ethics and public policy program of Adelphi University, has studied and written on the use of facial recognition technology and the risks associated with such surveillance. He agreed with the report’s findings and said it’s unclear if the technology would enhance security.

“Given that the vast number of acts of violence are carried out by current students who are not on any lists that bar them from entry, this method is not going to be helpful in that regard,” he said.

New York law would allow schools significant latitude in sharing students' facial biometrics and the data gathered from surveillance with third parties. This raises significant privacy concerns, Kaplan added.

The report noted that facial recognition technology could impact students' civil rights. These systems are “at their core, automated decision-making processes that have traditionally been performed by humans,” it read. “Given the potentially higher rate of false positives for people of color, nonbinary and transgender people, women, the elderly and children, the use of FRT [facial recognition technology] in schools for security purposes may implicate civil rights laws.”

Kaplan agreed. He added that while such technology has improved, it is still flawed. “This could have some significant negative outcomes for students,” he said.

Systems as such could be costly, too. Lockport’s cost about $1.4 million, according to the report.

But benefits could be found for one-to-one uses, the report found. For example, a student could use facial recognition technology to open a device such as an iPad instead of having to use and remember a password.

Those uses should be left up to local agencies to decide, the report found.

David Wicks, superintendent at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said local systems ceased discussing such technology when the state issued its moratorium on it. He expects that schools would be cautious about moving forward with it — if they did at all — if use is approved.
 

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