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Facial recognition technology offers potential safety benefits, but most U.S. schools remain wary
Science & Tech
Juliana Chan Erikson
Julia de Boer

Matthew DeBoer never intended to be a spokesperson for facial recognition. Back in 2018, the principal of St. Therese Catholic Academy, a K-8 school in Seattle, was looking to upgrade the academy’s aging security system when he heard about an offer from tech firm RealNetworks to pilot test its facial recognition technology.

With support from parents and staff, DeBoer signed up and installed facial recognition by the school’s external doors.

Now, to get inside St. Therese, parents and staff stare at an external camera and smile. If the system recognizes the person’s face, the front doors . DeBoer says the system has helped staffers match faces with names and expedited routine visits from parents and delivery workers.

“I wasn’t sold on it right away,” he said. “But when I thought it through, this technology reminded me of my mantra, ‘How can we make the world smaller?’”

With a handful of exceptions, though, U.S. schools are still not sold on facial recognition. 

An October 2019 Wired magazine found that of the more than 13,000 public school districts in the United States, only eight had installed facial recognition systems in the previous year. 

Of those, at least one has walked back its policy. The Lockport school district in New York state was among the first in the country to adopt facial recognition in all its K-12 buildings. But after the New York Legislature issued a statewide on facial recognition and other forms of biometrics in schools until 2022, Lockport had to shut down its system. 

Some U.S. cities aren’t sold on it either. Portland, San Francisco, and a few other smaller cities in California and Massachusetts now prohibit facial recognition in public and local government spaces. While schools are not specifically mentioned, the bans have made introducing facial recognition there a nonstarter. 

Proponents of facial recognition say it’s a powerful crime deterrent that could have prevented school shootings like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 that left 17 people dead. Since the alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was an expelled former student, some say school administrators could have added him to a facial recognition system, which would have denied him entrance to the school.

But Carl Chinn, an expert on church security, says facial recognition won’t identify suspicious behavior, the chief factor a security team should look for when protecting children. 

I wasn’t sold on it right away. But when I thought it through, this technology reminded me of my mantra, ‘How can we make the world smaller?’

“I’m in favor of watching for dangerous activities,” he said. “Facial recognition ain’t going to help you [with that].”

Much of the argument against facial recognition in school concerns student privacy, consent, and racial bias. One parent from the Lockport district told he feared the system would have “turned our kids into lab rats in a high-tech experiment in privacy invasion.”

Others say facial recognition is too inaccurate to be useful and could lead to misidentification and wrongful disciplinary action against people of color. A National Institute of Standards and Technology found that facial recognition systems misidentified minorities up to 100 times more often than white men.

Back in Seattle, DeBoer says that although 86 percent of St. Therese Catholic Academy students identify as persons of color, he’s found the rate of misidentification consistent across all skin colors. His school resolves privacy issues by restricting the systems to external entrances, keeping cameras out of classrooms, and never using facial recognition on students. 

The school also made the system voluntary, so skeptical parents can still check in the old-fashioned way—by walking into the main office.