Legislation requiring a one-year moratorium on biometric identification technology, like facial recognition systems, in schools, passed the Assembly Education Committee Wednesday.

  • Moratorium on biometric security in schools passed Assembly Education Committee
  • Lockport is testing a system called Aegis this week
  • Proponents say the sponsor of the moratorium doesn't understand the technology

The bill would direct the state education commissioner to study it in the interim.

"If she decides that she thinks it's worthwhile, it's a good investment in technology, then we should have statewide regulations to address how the data's going to be used, how the technology's going to be implemented, who's going to have access to it, what protocols are going to be in place to keep the student data safe," Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, said.

This week, Lockport schools began testing a new Aegis security system. It includes facial recognition technology, but the State Education Department said that component will not be part of these initial tests.

"The Department continues to be in contact with the Lockport Central School District regarding its use of facial recognition technology," a NYSED spokesperson said. "The district has assured us no facial recognition software will be used this week while it tests other components of the system. NYSED staff will visit the district to learn about the district’s system.”

NYSED regulations are currently being finalized that will adopt a standard for data privacy and security for all state educational agencies. It recommended Lockport not use the facial recognition technology until the department is sure student privacy is protected.

"Primarily, we don't want our students to be used as guinea pigs for a very new and untested technology," Wallace said. "We want to make sure that if this software.. first of all, is this software even reliable."

Lockport plans to fully implement Aegis next year, while another Western New York district, Depew, is in more preliminary stages of implementation. The security upgrades were made possible through a state Legislature Smart School Bond Act in 2014.

Depew Superintendent Jeffrey Rabey said Wallace's bill was developed with "little, if any, understanding" of the act, input from schools or an understanding of the system. He and a private security consultant who helped develop the system with schools said the assembly member has refused numerous invitations to see how it works.

"Aegis, the facial recognition technology system would allow Depew to provide for a higher level of safety and security for its students and overall school-community," Rabey said. "In fact, the justification provided for the bill was grounded in protecting student privacy, when district policy has always and will continue to evolve to indeed protect student privacy, even around any facial recognition technology systems that a school district may implement now or in the future.”

The consultant, Tony Olivo, pointed out Aegis is a closed system and is only recorded if a person is flagged. He also pointed out the only people the system flags are those not allowed in schools, like sex offenders, not students.

"Representations have been made that is reliable by the vendor but of course that person is not necessarily self-interested," Wallace said. "That person stands to make a profit from the sale of it. I know there have been studies showing generally facial recognition software is not that reliable."

Wallace's office said she's been busy with the end of legislative session but also argues the legislation would not just apply to Aegis but any biometric technology other districts might look to implement in the future.

"The Lockport City School District is aware of the bill introduced by Assembly member Monica Wallace relating to biometric identifying technology," a Lockport spokesperson said. "The district will continue to monitor the bill. Lockport City School District will conduct continued due diligence with the implementation of the Aegis system and work collaboratively with the New York State Education Department."

Olivo said facial recognition is not the only component of the Aegis system. It also for instance can identify and flag a person holding a gun.