Facial recognition in schools risks making racism worse

"We have focused on facial recognition in schools because it is not yet widespread and because it will impact particularly vulnerable populations," says Shobita Parthasarathy. (Credit: hijukal/Flickr)

Officials should ban the use of facial recognition technology in schools, according to new research that cites the heightened risk of racism and potential for privacy erosion.

The study comes at a time when debates over returning to in-person school in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic are consuming administrators and teachers, who need to decide which technologies will best serve public health and educational and privacy requirements.

Among the concerns is facial recognition, which officials could use to monitor student attendance and behavior as well as contact tracing. But the report argues the technology will “exacerbate racism,” an issue of particular concern as the nation confronts structural inequality and discrimination.

In the pre-COVID-19 debate about the technology, experts saw deployment of facial recognition as a potential panacea to assist with security measures in the aftermath of school shootings. Schools also have begun using it to track students and automate attendance records. Globally, facial recognition technology represents a $3.2 billion business.

The study asserts, however, that not only is the technology unsuited to security purposes, but it also creates a web of serious problems beyond racial discrimination. These include normalizing surveillance and eroding privacy, institutionalizing inaccuracy and creating false data on school life, commodifying data, and marginalizing nonconforming students.

“We have focused on facial recognition in schools because it is not yet widespread and because it will impact particularly vulnerable populations,” says Shobita Parthasarathy, professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and director of the Ford School’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program (STPP). “The research shows that prematurely deploying the technology without understanding its implications would be unethical and dangerous.”

Researchers used an analogical case comparison method, looking specifically at previous uses of security technology like CCTV cameras and metal detectors, as well as biometric technologies, to anticipate the implications of facial recognition.

Currently, there are no national laws regulating facial recognition technology anywhere in the world.

“Some people say, ‘We can’t regulate a technology until we see what it can do.’ But looking at technology that has already been implemented, we can predict the potential social, economic, and political impacts, and surface the unintended consequences,” says Molly Kleinman, STPP’s program manager.

Though the study recommends a complete ban on the technology’s use, it concludes with a set of 15 policy recommendations for those at the national, state, and school district levels who may be considering using it, as well as a set of sample questions for stakeholders, such as parents and students, to consider as they evaluate its use.

Source: University of Michigan