School facial recognition system sparks privacy concerns

A New York school district is hoping to use technology to make its children safer.

Lockport City School District (LCSD) is buying facial and software to pinpoint dangerous people and objects, including guns. The school wants to be a model of security, but it has privacy and civil rights advocates up in arms.

LCSD has committed to purchase the facial and object recognition software from Ontario, Canada-based firm SN Technologies, as part of a $3.8m security update using a grant provided by the 2014 Smart School Bond Act (SSBA).

The grant money – a total of $2bn distributed across New York state – was intended for upgrading schools with educational technology-related purchases including high-speed broadband, wireless and learning technology. Lockport was allocated $4.27m from the SBA.

In its SSBA spending plan, approved in a meeting over the 2016 summer break, LCSD allocated $2.75m of the grant for ‘video surveillance’ alongside other expenses including securing windows, mass notification systems and visitor badging systems. The school issued a detailed document outlining its plan:

Existing cameras will be upgraded and new cameras and wiring will be added to provide viewing and automated facial and object recognition of live and recorded surveillance video. Additional surveillance servers are being added to provide enhanced storage of recorded video and processing of live and recorded surveillance video.

SN Technologies sells three systems under its Aegis brand name. Sentry is a facial recognition system that it says can alert school officials if individuals including registered sex offenders, suspended students, fired employees or known gang members enter the school. Mercury is a forensic search engine that can review video unattended and search for specific people. Protector is its shape recognition system that can recognize “any of the top 10 guns used in school shootings” if brought inside a school, according to the SN Technologies web site.

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