The Delicate Ethics of Using Facial Recognition in Schools
On a steamy evening in May, 9,000 people filled Stingaree Stadium at Texas City High School for graduation night. A rainstorm delayed ceremonies by a half hour, but the school district’s facial recognition system didn’t miss a beat. Cameras positioned along the fence line allowed algorithms to check every face that walked in the gate.
As the stadium filled with families, security staff in the press box received a notification that the system had spotted someone on their watch list. It was a boy who had been expelled from the district and sent to a county disciplinary school, whose pupils are barred by district rules from visiting other campuses.
Less than 30 seconds after the boy sat down, a sheriff’s deputy asked for his name. When he replied, he was escorted from the stadium and missed his sister’s graduation. “Mama was upset, but that’s the rules,” says Mike Matranga, executive director of security at Texas City Independent School District, on the shore of Galveston Bay south of Houston.
Matranga proudly relates the incident to show how facial recognition can make schools safer. It also shows how the nation’s schoolchildren have been thrust into a debate over the value—and the risks—of AI-enhanced surveillance.
WIRED identified eight public school systems, from rural areas to giant urban districts, that have moved to install facial recognition systems in the past year. There likely are many more. The technology watched over thousands of students returning to school in recent weeks, continually checking faces against watch lists compiled by school officials and law enforcement.
Administrators say facial recognition systems are important tools to respond to or even prevent major incidents such as shootings. But the systems are also being used to enforce school rules or simply as a convenient way to monitor students.
This spring, staff at Putnam City Schools in Oklahoma needed to check whether a student reported as having run away from home was at school. Rather than ask teachers, Cory Boggs, who directs IT for the district, tapped facial recognition cameras to quickly spot the student. “It’s a very, very efficient way of monitoring a group of people,” he says. Putnam City and Texas City both bought surveillance software called Better Tomorrow from AnyVision, an Israeli startup that media reports in its home country say supplies Israeli army checkpoints in the West Bank.
Not everyone likes the idea of facial recognition in schools. Last year, parents in Lockport, New York, protested plans by school officials to install a $1.4 million facial recognition system, saying it was inappropriate to use such potentially intrusive technology on children. “The moment they turn those cameras on, every student, including my daughter, is being surveilled by a system that can track their whereabouts and their associations,” says Jim Shultz, the parent of a Lockport junior. The district says it doesn’t intend to watch students; rather, officials say they want to keep out unwelcome visitors, including suspended students and local sex offenders.
The parent protests, reported first by the Lockport Journal, caught the attention of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which raised concerns about the accuracy of facial recognition algorithms on darker skin tones. The NYCLU noted that the district planned to include suspended students, who are disproportionately black, on its watch list. Similar worries have helped motivate cities including San Francisco and Oakland to ban their public agencies from using facial recognition. In June, the New York State Education Department ordered Lockport to halt testing of the system.
Jason Nance, a law professor at the University of Florida, says facial recognition is part of a trend of increasing surveillance and security in US schools, despite a lack of firm evidence that more technology makes kids safer. Nance’s research has documented how high-profile school shootings drive intensifying surveillance, with the burden falling heaviest on students of color.
Companies selling facial recognition systems see schools as a growing market. Shootings like the murder of 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last year drive interest and sales. Max Constant, AnyVision’s chief commercial officer, won’t disclose how many US schools the company has worked with but says its work “typically centers around areas in which previous tragedies have occurred.” In a statement, AnyVision said its technology is installed at hundreds of sites worldwide. “Our technology never catalogs or retains records of individuals screened, and AnyVision remains committed to operating under the highest level of privacy and ethical standards,” the company said.
The Parkland shooting prompted another tech firm, RealNetworks, to offer its facial recognition software to schools for free. “Parkland happened, [and] we said as a matter of public impact we will make it available,” says CEO Rob Glaser. “Districts representing over 1,000 schools have expressed interest.” Mike Vance, RealNetworks’ senior director of product management, says dozens of schools are using the technology to automatically open gates for parents or staff, or watch for persons of interest, such as parents subject to court orders in custody disputes. RealNetworks directs schools it works with to a short best-practice guide on facial recognition in schools, which discusses privacy and transparency, but the company does not monitor how schools are using its technology.
This spring, three Panasonic engineers journeyed from Houston and Japan to West Platte, Missouri, 30 miles from Kansas City. There, they helped install a $200,000 camera system the district ordered to watch over its 600 students, including licenses to equip 13 cameras with Panasonic’s FacePRO facial recognition. The cameras primarily guard school entrances and feed footage to the school’s IT office and local law enforcement, which both receive alerts when the system identifies someone on the district’s watch list. The footage is stored by default for a month, says Chad Bradley, CTO of TriCorps Security, the Oklahoma City company that oversaw the installation. Panasonic did not respond to requests for comment.
In rural east Texas, the 1,900-student Spring Hill Independent School District this summer installed cameras and facial recognition software. The $400,000 system was called into service the night before school resumed in August, after a high school student posted a threat on social media. Staff added his photo to the software’s watch list as a precaution, although the incident was resolved before school started, says superintendent Wayne Guidry. “I think our campuses are a lot safer,” he says.
Texas City, an oil town of 46,000, adopted facial recognition after two local tragedies. In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey damaged some of the district’s buildings, voters approved a $136 million bond measure to pay for four new schools, buses, and security upgrades. Days after that vote, the alleged shooter, a student, walked into the art block at the high school in nearby Santa Fe, Texas, with a shotgun and revolver, killing eight students and two teachers.
Rodney Cavness, Texas City’s school superintendent, reacted quickly. Three days after the Santa Fe tragedy, he hired Matranga, a Texas City native who had spent years in the Secret Service assigned to candidate and then President Obama. “I knew we needed to do something different,” Cavness says. “I hired an expert and let him do the job.”
Matranga built a small team of military veterans and got to work. The district installed hundreds more security cameras, applied bullet-resistant film to windows, and hardened classroom doors with bolts and a remote locking system. It invested in software that trawls the web and social media for mentions of the school………Read More>>