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High-tech safety comes with controversy

An upstate New York school district now is using new technology to keep students safe from intruders.

On the surface, it sounds good, but the idea has triggered much outrage and controversy from parents and civil rights advocates who fear it will compromise student privacy.

That’s because the $1.4 million high-tech system now being used at Lockport Central School District, about 20 miles west of Niagara Falls, New York, involves new-age facial recognition.

Welcome to the future.

The school district activated the system Thursday. It originally had been set to go live in September but was put on hold after questions were raised, and the New York state department of education told the district to delay startup of the new system.

The good news about the Canadian-made Aegis facial recognition system, according to Superintendent Michelle Bradley, is that it is able to alert staff of guns and certain individuals who pose a potential threat, including level 2 or 3 sex offenders, suspended staff members and people flagged by law enforcement or prohibited by court order, the Associated Press reported late last week.

Citing the February 2018 attack that expelled student Nikolas Cruz is accused of killing 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the New York district also originally planned to include certain students.

However, those plans were scrapped amid privacy concerns.

Let’s face it (no pun intended), facial recognition technology is no longer just part of a good science fiction flick. Today, the technology is used in many public arenas including sports stadiums and even retailers.

Travel through an airport recently? Odds are your face was captured by this type of technology.

Spend some time in a casino? Yep, you were on camera.

Still, use of facial recognition is rare in schools.

Bradley said the system does not collect or store any personally identifiable or other information until a match is made and confirmed by school staff, who would receive an alert from the system.

The New York Civil Liberties Union argues that facial recognition technology infringes on students’ rights just by scanning their faces in search of a match. Some outspoken opponents have also raised suspicions that the new system could be used to target or profile specific groups of students as they move throughout the school buildings.

School officials have described that as “a misconception” about the system.

“That’s not what the system is intended to do,” Bradley told WKBW in Buffalo in the fall. “The system is intended to keep individuals who could be harmful to the district … out of district.”

Bradley also told the Buffalo TV station that she was “disappointed” at the pushback the district received.

Despite the opposition raised, I’m not so sure I don’t like the idea.

As a mom, I always favor new technology that could improve school safety.

And as a journalist, I know how challenging it is to obtain records, videos or photos depicting students from local school districts. Through the years, this newspaper more than once has requested access to school bus videos or school building security video when criminal acts or assaults have been reported.

Despite serious efforts, we have not often been successful — especially when student faces are recognizable.

So, trust me when I say, school districts aren’t just willy-nilly handing out our kids’ records and images to anyone who asks.

New York state education department officials said they believe Lockport has satisfied their concerns about student privacy and data.

Privacy, of course, is always a concern, especially in a society where it seems we have less and less. But if new technology also enables us new ways to keep our kids safe, why would we pass on that opportunity?

Linert is editor of the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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