It seems like we inch closer to living in a Black Mirror episode each and every day. As technology continues to grow more invasive, privacy, in turn, is rapidly diminishing as so many of us willingly allow companies to gain ownership of our personal data — which can too easily turn around to bite us in the butt. And sure, that may be fine for us adults who at least understand (somewhat) what we’re getting into — but what about our kids? How do we protect them and their privacy while they’re still too young to have much say in the matter? It looks like this may now be an uphill battle, as facial recognition technology makes its way into schools and summer camps. Are you creeped out yet? We don’t blame you.
According to the Wall Street Journal, a facial-recognition software — which would ensure no non-registered adults are allowed on campus — is currently being proposed to a number of K-12 public school districts. The selling point is simple enough: Here’s a way to protect your children from active shooters and other possible threats. Yes, it immediately tugs at the heart strings, because let’s face it, it’s hard for any parent to resist innovations that ensure their little one is kept out of harm’s way. Facial recognition technology may be forcing you to choose the lesser of two evils, which seems like a no-brainer. However, privacy experts are urging parents to take the cautious route. The pendulum can easily swing in the favor of misuse if not carefully monitored.
In a statement reported by The Wall Street Journal, Nathan Sheard, Grassroots Advocacy Organizer at Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “We’re in the very early stages of commercial, nongovernmental use of facial recognition, and we shouldn’t be waiting until harms occur to do something, we should be acting now to mitigate the harms.”
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Perhaps the very first step in mitigating said harms is understanding how, exactly, the technology works. The software, which was developed by a Canadian firm known as SN Technologies Corp., requires school districts to create a database with images of people who are not allowed on school grounds — not exactly helpful if a potential attacker is unknown, a random stranger, or, of course, a current student. The technology can also identify a visible gun on school property — but not one that is being hidden by a potential attacker. So there’s no capability to detect a rogue student bringing a concealed firearm onto school grounds. Translation: We don’t have a lot of faith that this technology would actually prevent school shootings.
New York State Assembly member Monica Wallace is also not quite sold on the latest offering from big tech. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized how concerning it is that we don’t have any policies in place and that no one has given it any detailed thought before rushing forward,” she told The Wall Street Journal. She also shared that one school district is already using the software “for disciplinary purposes as well as threat assessments.” Wallace has since introduced legislation that seeks to slow down the rollout of facial recognition into New York schools until properly vetted guidelines are put in place. The bill has passed in the Assembly and is now awaiting review in the state senate.
But schools aren’t the only institutions making use of facial recognition — camps are getting on board as well. Photographers simply snap a few photos of camp attendees and upload them to a site where they’re scanned, identified, and then shared with parents via their phone or the website. One of these sites is Waldo Photos Inc., which allows either camps or parents to pay a fee of up to $2 per day per child for these pics. The site asks that parents provide a photo of their child that will then be matched by artificial intelligence. An important thing to note: The image won’t be erased unless you explicitly ask for it to be.
While I certainly enjoy the idea of knowing my children are safe at all times, the potential long-term dangers of giving away their data for this kind of in-depth analysis — and, is it likely, replication? — are more than enough to give me pause. Let’s say we continue to exercise caution until serious protective laws are put into action.