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New York Civil Liberties Union files lawsuit over Lockport facial recognition system

The lawsuit aims to have the New York State Education Department's approval of the facial recognition system revoked, and have Lockport deactivate the system.

NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a lawsuit on Monday against the New York State Education Department (NYSED) for approving facial recognition technology to be used at the Lockport City Schools last year.

The NYCLU says the lawsuit was filed on behalf of Lockport parents, Jim Shultz and Renee Cheatham, saying the facial recognition technology system is in violation of student data protection laws. The lawsuit aims to have NYSED's approval of the facial recognition system revoked and have Lockport deactivate the system.

“NYSED’s approval of this technology demonstrated a dangerous lack of oversight and an alarming misunderstanding of the way it analyzes student data,” said Stefanie Coyle, deputy director of the Education Policy Center at the NYCLU. “It’s NYSED’s responsibility to protect students and provide expert-level oversight statewide, and it abdicated that responsibility with this decision. Facial recognition surveillance is intrusive, biased, and inaccurate, and it has no place in schools.”

The facial recognition system engages in the real-time collection, analysis, and retention of biometric information from every student at Lockport schools. The NYCLU says, "The collection and analysis of sensitive student data should require the District to comply with provisions of New York’s Education Law that afford a high level of security to personally identifiable information."

“The Lockport facial recognition surveillance system was the product of a Board of Education falling for the sweet talk of a salesman who misrepresented himself as an independent security expert,” said Shultz. “Neither the school district or state education officials gave a thought to the radical impact this would have on student privacy.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union also filed a separate suit against NYSED last week for failing to respond to a request pertaining to New York State's Freedom of Information Law regarding information about Lockport’s system and its approval.

Assemblymember Monica Wallace and New York State Senator Brian Kavanagh released the following joint statement on Tuesday:

“The lawsuit recently filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union against the New York State Education Department for permitting the use of facial recognition technology in the Lockport City School District illustrates, yet again, why it is urgent for NYSED to alter its course on this issue. We have proposed legislation to impose a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology in schools, but NYSED and school districts themselves have the authority to take that step now, without waiting for either the Legislature or the Courts to require that. 

“We are concerned that this technology could be used in ways that violate the privacy and civil rights of students, staff, and visitors; that it is an ineffective form of school security; and that student data may not be stored securely.  

“We are also concerned about the accuracy of this technology. The National Institute of Standards and Technology recently found that African American and Asian individuals were falsely identified up to 100 times more than Caucasians. Numerous studies have found that the technology is generally less accurate when scanning the faces of young people, people of color, and women. Our bill gives NYSED an avenue to address these issues and develop detailed guidelines on the use of this technology, if it decides to allow its use at all, before any young people are subjected to this invasive form of surveillance. 

“This lawsuit comes at a time when state and local governments, including schools, face significant fiscal stress as a result of COVID-19. It makes no sense for NYSED to spend taxpayer dollars to defend its decision to permit a technology that may ultimately be prohibited in schools. Therefore, we encourage NYSED and the Lockport City School District to adopt their own moratoriums on facial recognition technology, in order to avoid unnecessary litigation costs at a time when education resources are scarce.” 

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