Privacy SOS

ACLU and Teachers Unions: Superintendents Must Prevent Face Surveillance in Schools

Last week, the ACLU of Massachusetts and the two largest teachers’ unions in the state—the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers, Mass. Chapter—sent a letter to all 273 school superintendents in the state, asking the leaders to prohibit the use of face surveillance in the schools under their control. 

Over the past year, five Massachusetts cities and towns have passed local ordinances that ban municipal government agencies from using face recognition surveillance, including Somerville, Brookline, Northampton, Cambridge, and Springfield. That means 440,000 Massachusetts residents are protected from local government face surveillance. But there are over 950,000 students currently enrolled in elementary and secondary schools across our state, and only 5 percent (~48,000) of them are protected by these municipal bans.

School superintendents in Massachusetts must take action to protect their students, as the threat of face surveillance in schools grows. Earlier this year, Lockport Public Schools in New York activated a district-wide face surveillance system, subjecting over 4,000 students to the dangerous technology — despite the objections of community members and advocacy organizations, including the New York Civil Liberties Union. Here in Massachusetts, emails obtained by the ACLU show that private technology companies are specifically targeting schools as potential users of their surveillance software. One such company, Clearview AI, marketed their technology to Somerset Berkley Regional High School in Massachusetts, as revealed by a leak of Clearview’s client list. According to the report, some officials have been testing Clearview’s technology without the knowledge or approval of their supervisors—let alone the public or elected leadership.

Face surveillance raises particularly serious problems when used on children. A 2019 study of five “off-the-shelf” facial recognition algorithms found “a negative bias for each algorithm on children.” Yet not all children are affected equally – transgender children, children of color, and immigrant children will face the highest risks. As a recent federal study showed, across the board, facial recognition algorithms consistently exhibit bias against people of color, women, young children, and older adults, leading to higher false positive rates for these already-vulnerable populations. Thus, as the letter says, false positives from face surveillance “are more likely to impact children of color, [and] will result in unnecessary interactions with law enforcement, lost class time, disciplinary action, and potentially even a criminal record.”

But even setting accuracy concerns aside, face surveillance technology has no place in our schools. Subjecting young people to constant, automated tracking would have a negative effect on students’ feelings of safety and trust, and would increase anxiety in an environment that is supposed to be for learning and exploration. Funding for education does not grow on trees, and we should prioritize initiatives that support and help students, such as increasing counseling resources and supporting teachers – not initiatives that further endanger and criminalize students.

Last month, digital advocacy organization Fight for the Future launched a campaign calling on colleges and universities nationwide to ban face surveillance. Their campaign uses scorecards to evaluate different schools’ use of the technology, and offers resources for college students who wish to take collective action on campus and within student government. Already, their organizing has pushed at least one school—UCLA—to back off plans to adopt the technology.

Schools across Massachusetts should likewise commit to keeping their campuses face surveillance free. In the meantime, the state legislature must immediately pass legislation currently before the Judiciary Committee that would establish a moratorium on government use of face surveillance technology, and other biometric surveillance methods, across the state. Our lawmakers have the power to press pause on unregulated government face surveillance, and they must — to protect our young people, and to protect us all. Send a message urging your state senator and representative to take action today.

This blog post was written by ACLU of Massachusetts Technology Fellow Lauren Chambers.

© 2020 ACLU of Massachusetts.