New York bans facial recognition in schools until at least 2022

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation on Tuesday making his state the first to ban the use of facial recognition technology and other biometric technology in both public and private K-12 schools.

The new law places a moratorium on schools purchasing or using biometric technology until at least July 1, 2022 or until a study is conducted determining acceptable use of the technology, whichever comes later.

“Facial recognition technology could provide a host of benefits to New Yorkers, but its use brings up serious and legitimate privacy concerns that we have to examine, especially in schools,” Cuomo said in a press release. “This legislation requires state education policymakers to take a step back, consult with experts and address privacy issues before determining whether any kind of biometric identifying technology can be brought into New York’s schools. The safety and security of our children is vital to every parent, and whether to use this technology is not a decision to be made lightly.”

The new law directs the state Office of Information Technology to work with the New York State Education Department to develop the report, including feedback from teachers, parents and school-safety experts to address issues of security and data privacy.

The legislation follows years of increased use of biometric technology in crime fighting across the country, accompanied by claims from civil rights groups that the technology is biased, particularly against minority groups, and that it represents a creeping invasion of the public’s privacy. Cuomo’s office cited concern in its announcement that facial recognition technology exhibits “high rates of misidentification of women, young people, and people of color as well as the safety and security of biometric data and corresponding student privacy concerns.”

The American Civil Liberties Union lauded the governor’s decision to sign the legislation in a tweet on Tuesday. 

“This is a victory for student privacy and students of color, who are disproportionately harmed by this flawed and biased technology,” the ACLU tweet read. “New York has led the way, and now other states should follow.”

Facial recognition has been the center of controversy at many schools in recent years, including an incident in the summer of 2019 at Lockport City School District in upstate New York, where cameras were installed to protect students against sex offenders and school shooters, but were then turned off after a petition called for community input, particularly regarding the district’s privacy policies.

“Schools should be safe places for students to learn, not spaces where they are constantly surveilled,” the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote in a letter protesting the technology’s deployment at the time.

Law enforcement, however, frequently credits facial recognition systems with the arrest of criminals it might not have been able to identify otherwise. Amid the constant furor surrounding the emerging technology, both advocates and skeptics seem to agree that completely eliminating use of the technology would be impossible. Groups like the ACLU and the Georgetown University Law Center are instead banking on a strategy that entails postponing its use until stronger governance and privacy protections can be standardized and widely instated.

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