By Jill Draper
In 2018 the Raytown School District received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for a facial recognition pilot project at its two high schools. The district planned to collect pictures of all students and employees through a software program, as well as the faces of people on the state’s sexual predator registry and anyone deemed a threat, including individuals expelled or suspended. But the project did not start immediately, and the pandemic interrupted its progress when students and staff stayed home for remote learning.
“Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the project had to be put on hold. We aren’t sure when we will be able to begin,” said Brooke Rohlfing, assistant director of communications. She said staff have moved forward as much as possible, and are finalizing the configuration of facial recognition equipment in school buildings.
Students and teachers will return to school later this month, and the district’s Board of Education will meet on Aug. 9 to decide whether masks are mandatory, Rohlfing said. But surprisingly, their decision might not hamper the facial recognition project. New software exists that can identify faces wearing masks by honing in on the eyes and forehead.
Facial recognition has grown more common and more controversial in recent years. It’s been criticized for built-in racial biases. Some reports say the software falsely identifies African-American, Native American and Asian faces more often than Caucasian faces. The technology also has more difficulty identifying older adults than those middle-aged.
Others worry about its potential for misuse. A New York Times article in March 2020 described a facial recognition system developed by Clearview AI for hundreds of law enforcement agencies. The company claimed its technology would be available only for law enforcement and select security professionals, but The Times found it was used freely by the company’s investors, clients and friends. One owner of a grocery store chain used it to surveil shoppers and to identify a man on a date with his daughter. Others used it to identify people whose names they didn’t know or couldn’t recall or as a party trick.
Last December the New York state legislature banned facial recognition (also known as biometric identifying technology) in schools until at least July 2022 so the state education department could evaluate privacy implications.
Rohlfing said she was not aware of any concerns about the Raytown project, especially since it’s not yet implemented. “For the most part, everything’s been positive,” she said.