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Facing Tomorrow's High-Tech School Surveillance

Published: October 29, 2018
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This fall, as students file into Lockport City schools in upstate New York, they will be watched not just by teachers. Instead, for the first time in the district’s history, students will be monitored by a sophisticated new surveillance system that scans their faces, looking for matches to the school’s security database.

It might sound like dystopian science fiction, but this could be the not-too-distant future for schools across America and beyond. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, for instance, have already begun publishing models for how to use facial recognition and machine learning to predict student engagement. A Seattle company recently offered up an open-source facial recognition system for use in schools, while startups are already selling “engagement detectors” to online learning courses in France and China. Advocates for these systems believe the technology will make for smarter students, better teachers, and safer schools. But not everyone is convinced this kind of surveillance apparatus belongs in the classroom, that these applications even work, or that they won’t unfairly target minority faces.

Lockport’s facial recognition program has become both a local controversy and a national test case at the forefront of a wave of similar systems rolling out in American schools. To install its system, the Lockport school district was awarded $4 million through the Smart Schools Bond Act, a New York State fund. While most other schools in the state applied for funding to update computer labs or digitize books, Lockport requested specific funds for “new cameras and wiring…to provide viewing and automated facial and object recognition of live and recorded surveillance video,” plus “additional surveillance servers…to provide enhanced storage of recorded video and processing,” according to the grant application.

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