Appearance Search can find people based on their age, gender, clothing, and facial characteristics, and it scans through videos like facial recognition tech — though the company that makes it, Avigilon, says it doesn’t technically count as a full-fledged facial recognition tool.
Even so, privacy experts told Recode that, for students, the distinction doesn’t necessarily matter. Appearance Search allows school administrators to review where a person has traveled throughout campus — anywhere there’s a camera — using data the system collects about that person’s clothing, shape, size, and potentially their facial characteristics, among other factors. It also allows security officials to search through camera feeds using certain physical descriptions, like a person’s age, gender, and hair color.
…“People don’t behave the same when they’re being watched,” warns Brenda Leong, the director of AI and ethics at the Future of Privacy Forum. “Do we really want both young students and high schoolers, and anybody else, feeling like they’re operating in that environment all the time?”
Adding to privacy concerns surrounding a tool like Appearance Search is the fact that it’s not exclusively being used to address violence in schools. School administrators are already using the system to try to intercept bullying, to deter code of conduct violations, and to assist in investigations of school employees.
…Avigilon would not share how many schools are using Appearance Search. While Recode identified at least nine public school districts that have acquired or have access to the software, it’s likely many more schools are using the tool.
For instance, the New York Civil Liberties Union says that more than a dozen school districts in New York State have purchased Avigilon equipment. While the NYCLU doesn’t know for certain how many have access to or have used the Appearance Search tool, technology strategist Daniel Schwarz said in an email that “given its inclusion into the main [Avigilon Control Center] software it is likely that a high percentage of schools will have the feature at their fingertips.”
At the schools that have gotten the tool, we already have a sense of how it can be used.
…Appearance Search has been used to locate children lost in schools, to investigate complaints against staff, and to deter violations of codes of conduct. He says the software has also made the school security staff aware of disciplinary infractions they otherwise would not have known about.
…As Kai Koerber, a recent graduate of MSD, told Recode about the technology: “I don’t think [students] should have to — by going to school — volunteer to accept this kind of new social contract where you’re going to be recorded and traced through your every move. I do think people have the right to be able to walk to the next class without being identified.”
…“Yes, it may work in terms of, ‘we can identify people who don’t belong on the campus.’ At the same time, we are invading the privacy of each and every student,” he said.
Koerber’s concerns are echoed by student privacy advocates, who say the tool could be used to track and surveil students. “It is surveillance technology, and it is tracking technology, and any school implementing any variation of those is potentially creating more harms and risks than they’re solving,” said Leong.