Texas School District's Facial Recognition System Capable Of Capturing A Single Student's Image More Than 1,000 Times A Week
from the Panopticon-ISD dept
Facial recognition tech is making its way into schools, subjecting minors to the same tech that still hasn’t proven its worth in the adult world. Like many other surveillance encroachments, this acquisition and deployment was prompted by violence and fear.
Alfred Ng of The Markup has obtained documents detailing a system in use in some Texas schools, one acquired as a potential answer to a uniquely American existential threat.
The school district originally purchased AnyVision after a mass shooting in 2018, with hopes that the technology would prevent another tragedy. By January 2020, the school district had uploaded 2,967 photos of students for AnyVision’s database.
This seemingly small number only covers a few months of use by the Santa Fe (Texas) Independent School District. Prior to its official rollout, the district ran a short test using an even larger set of photos.
With more than 5,000 student photos uploaded for the test run, AnyVision called the results “impressive” and expressed excitement at the results to school administrators.
“Overall, we had over 164,000 detections the last 7 days running the pilot. We were able to detect students on multiple cameras and even detected one student 1100 times!” Taylor May, then a regional sales manager for AnyVision, said in an email to the school’s administrators.
It seems like the perfect tool to track students individually as they go about their school day. The 1,100 hits for a single student is considered a sign of the software’s effectiveness, something administrators seem unhealthily enthusiastic about.
And that’s not all the district did with its new tech. It also lent it to local law enforcement officers who were trying to identify a suspected drug dealer they believed was a student. The school’s cops contacted AnyVision which uploaded the provided photos and ran it against images captured by its system.
The company says the software is watchlist-based, limiting users to targeting persons of interest. Private retailers use it to keep shoplifters and other criminals out of stores. Schools can target suspected sex offenders by using publicly available mugshots from law enforcement databases.
But this trial run suggests the district isn’t interested in limiting itself to watchlists. The user guide [PDF] obtained by The Markup makes it clear the software can log all faces that pass by equipped cameras. It’s this kind of broad collection that enables more than 100,000 “detections” in a single week and allows students to be pinpointed 1,000 times during a five-day school week.
There are controls available in the software, but it’s not clear the district is using any of them.
The software offers a “Privacy Mode” feature in which it ignores all faces not on a watchlist, while another feature called “GDPR Mode” blurs non-watchlist faces on video playback and downloads. The Santa Fe Independent School District didn’t respond to a request for comment, including on whether it enabled the Privacy Mode feature.
As for AnyVision, it says hey, it’s just the provider.
“We do not activate these modes by default but we do educate our customers about them,” AnyVision’s chief marketing officer, Dean Nicolls, said in an email.
This lack of clarity or comment suggests the district is using the tech for all-purpose surveillance rather than utilizing it in the targeted fashion idealized in public statements and marketing brochures. The public statements by the district’s board claim there’s no invasion of privacy here, just another layer of protection. While the first part of the statement may be technically true given the lack of an expectation of privacy on school grounds, the latter is much more difficult to quantify as a justifiable offset for always-on surveillance.