Students attend a rally at Parkland High School outside Allentown, Pa., on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.
Photo: Michael Rubinkam (AP)

Advanced surveillance technologies once reserved for international airports and high-security prisons are coming to schools across America. From New York to Arkansas, schools are spending millions to outfit their campuses with some of the most advanced surveillance technology available: face recognition to deter predators, object recognition to detect weapons, and license plate tracking to deter criminals. Privacy experts are still debating the usefulness of these tools, whom they should be used on, and whom they should not, but school officials are embracing them as a way to save lives in times of crisis.

On Monday, the Magnolia School Board in Magnolia, Arkansas approved $287,217 for over 200 cameras at two schools. According to the Magnolia Reporter, the camera system will be capable of “facial recognition and tracking, live coverage, the ability to let local local law enforcement tap into the system in the event of a school situation, infrared capability and motion detection.”

And they aren’t the only ones. Earlier this month, the Lockport City School District announced it was installing new cameras outfitted with both face recognition and object recognition software. According to the software’s maker, faces can be matched against a database of gang members, fired employees, and sex offenders, while the object recognition tech can look for weapons and other prohibited objects.

“It is cutting edge. We’re hoping to be a model [for school security],” said Dr. Robert LiPuma, director of technology for the district told the Niagara Gazette. The paper reports the school district plans to spend “nearly all” of a $4 million state grant on new high-tech security measures at eight schools.

Similarly, license plate reading (LPR) cameras are coming to the Randolph Central School in New York, which spent half of $1.07 million a state bond allocation on high-tech security upgrades.

Advertisement

LPR cameras match license plates numbers against against national databases. They’re a quick way for law enforcement to know if a car has been stolen or if the owner is wanted for arrest, but also provides a wealth of information on where people go. If you’re not a suspect in a crime, cops can’t follow you around in your car all day. But, with a series of LPR cameras, officers could map where you’ve traveled all day, essentially granting them the same information, without ever having to seek a warrant.

Privacy and civil liberties experts are concerned, however, that the push to include biometric and location tracking security will have unforeseen consequences.

“Schools are justified in thinking about safety, both in terms of gun violence and other possible hazards,” Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Gizmodo. “At the same time, these technologies do not exist in a vacuum; we know, for instance, that facial recognition is less accurate for women and people of color, and also that school discipline is imposed more harshly on children of color.”

Advertisement

The technology isn’t foolproof. A study in February found that several face recognition systems had significantly higher failure and misidentification rates when used on dark-skinned and female faces, echoing earlier studies about the accuracy of such software.

Similarly, the databases people would be matched against are unreliable. People are frequently added to gang databases based on suspicion, without any gang-related convictions or even arrests. A 2016 audit found California police had added dozens of toddlers less a year old to its CalGang database.

“Any school or school district considering adopting these kinds of technologies must address these issues head on,” Levinson-Waldman said, “involve parents and the school community at large in any decision-making, and be fully transparent about how information gathered is used, retained, or shared, particularly with law enforcement or school resource officers.”

Advertisement

Additionally, undocumented and immigrant parents may have reason to worry about LPR implementation in schools, as ICE was recently granted access to one nationwide LPR database. If LPR cameras come to schools across the country, these parents might have legitimate fears about being targeted by ICE when dropping off their kids.

Ultimately, when schools turn to surveillance as a public safety tool, they’re also bringing the muddled issues of privacy, race, and fairness that comes with it. Technological proposals to protect students come with the same promises as those in the public sphere: faster, more accurate systems capable of larger scale identification. But, they come with the same problems of privacy and power.