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As facial recognition arrives in schools, Montana enters uncharted territory

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Two years ago, a small rural school district along the Rocky Mountain Front installed facial recognition surveillance technology in its elementary, middle and high schools.

“So when you walk in like that, we can snap a picture of your face and it will follow you through the whole school," said David Marzolf, the superintendent for Sun River Valley School District. “The number one reason that we do have it is safety.”

Marzolf says the technology has been used to recover stolen items and keep track of students on the buses.

The data, or faceprints, that identify students come from the yearbook photos that Marzolf imports into the system every year. The system is also connected to the local sheriff’s department and will alert Marzolf if a suspect in the sheriff’s system is on the school campus. It can also be used to alert him if a parent who does not have custody of a child is on campus.

“Of course the students think it’s pretty cool," Marzolf said. "The sheriff's department of course thinks it’s a good idea.”

Debate over the use of facial recognition technology is relatively new in Montana. State lawmakers over the last year and a half have studied how the government should or shouldn’t use it.

Debate over the use of facial recognition technology is relatively new in Montana. State lawmakers over the last year and a half have studied how the government should or shouldn’t use it.

“Facial recognition technology is something that can be used without your knowledge, because it can be done from a distance," Missoula Democratic state Rep. Katie Sullivan said of the proposal to study facial recognition technology during the 2021 session. "It can be prone to error, there are error rates in the technology, it can be considered an invasion of privacy and it can create a risk of data theft.


“At the same time, the technology can be used to solve crimes, prevent fraud, help find missing people and is a really neat and interesting way for law enforcement to do their job.

"So we’ve got this technology that has some pros and cons depending on the way you look at things.”

 A small, wireless security camera.
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A small, wireless security camera.

As the state grapples with the future of this technology, voters in November will cast ballots on another technological issue — whether to amend Montana’s Constitution to explicitly state that warrants are needed to access a person’s electronic data.

Experts say the use of these facial recognition technologies comes with a number of ethical considerations including privacy, data security and the impacts to those being watched.

Bonnie Sheehey, an assistant professor of philosophy at Montana State University, says the novelty of this technology has meant that schools and states are often regulating it retroactively.

“We kind of just, you know, introduce people to these new technologies and then we deal with the ethical implications or the ethical consequences after the fact," Sheehey said.


When contacted by Montana Public Radio, several of Montana’s leading public school associations and agencies knew little about how facial recognition technology was or wasn’t being used in public schools. MTPR reached out to School Administrators of Montana, Montana Office of Public Instruction, Montana Rural Education Association and Montana Safe School Center. None of them could speak to how many, or which schools are already using this technology.

Montana has laws that protect student’s data from being sold to third party marketing companies, but Sheehey says if a system is hacked then that law may no longer protect student’s data.

Verkada, the facial recognition technology company used by the Sun River Valley School District, was hacked last year. The company said it has since added additional layers of security to their systems.

“When you have this much information that’s this private information about these young people, potentially getting into the hands of others, there’s always a danger, and it’s reasonable for young people to be concerned about their privacy," said Jason Kelley, associate director of digital strategy for the digital rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Kelley says concerns around the use of facial recognition technology in schools prompted New York to place a moratorium on the technology. Other states have already banned the technology for use in government buildings.

“It is a good idea, if nothing else, to make sure that schools that use facial recognition do so with the consent of the student,” Kelly said.

"It is a good idea, if nothing else, to make sure that schools that use facial recognition do so with the consent of the student."

Montana is in the early stages of considering how to regulate the technology. Some of the first draft recommendations for lawmakers studying the issue was to define “facial recognition” in state law, because no definition currently exists.

The legislative interim study of the technology has primarily focused on the criminal justice system. A recent panel of state and local government didn’t include a representative from the public school system.

In the Sun River Valley School District, Superintendent David Marzolf said the facial recognition system is essentially an upgrade to their previous camera surveillance system. He says the total cost of the upgrade is around $100,000 for the entire district, which includes about 260 students.

"I would rather have a conversation with a parent on why we have this than why we didn’t have this and allowed something terrible to happen," he said.

Copyright 2022 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.