Tech Companies Want Schools to Use COVID Relief Money on Surveillance Tools

As schools reopen with billions in federal aid, surveillance vendors are hawking expensive tools like license plate readers and facial recognition.
May 17, 2021, 1:00pm
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As vaccination rates rise and schools prepare to reopen, surveillance companies have trained their sights on the billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds being provided to schools across the US, hoping to make a profit by introducing a bevy of new snooping devices.

“$82 BILLION,” reads the huge front-page font on one Motorola Solutions brochure distributed to K-12 schools after the passage of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. “Consider COVID-19 technology from Motorola Solutions for your Education Stabilization Fund dollars.”

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Other vendors are using similar language and marketing tactics that attempt to latch on to the amount of money Congress set aside for K-12 schools, colleges, and universities in the COVID-19 stimulus packages.

School administrators are used to receiving constant sales pitches from ed tech vendors. But many of the pricey products now being offered have previously been reserved for cops, or have been spun up over the last year to be marketed as solutions for reopening schools during the pandemic. Privacy experts fear that, if deployed, many of these technologies will remain in schools long after classrooms return to normal.

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Image: Motorola brochure

Motorola Solutions' suite of products in its "safe schools solutions" line includes automated license plate readers, watch lists that send automatic alerts when people enter a building, and anonymous “tip” submission apps for students, according to a copy of the brochure shared with Motherboard. The document also advertises artificial intelligence-powered camera systems that purportedly detect “unusual motion,” track individuals using facial recognition as they move around a school, and allow staff to search through hours of video to find footage of a person simply by typing in their “physical descriptors.”

Verkada, a smart surveillance camera company, and its sales partners have been aggressively pushing AI surveillance tools as a response to COVID-19, according to the company’s blog posts and emails obtained by Motherboard through public records requests.

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“Whether leveraging features like Face Search for contact tracing or Crowd Notifications to enforce social distancing, schools can proactively protect their students and staff,” a sales associate offering Verkada facial recognition products wrote in a March 8th email to technology staff at the Morgan-Hill Unified School District in California. 

He added that the products qualify for “ESSER II funding,” a reference to the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund created by Congress to help schools cope with the pandemic. It was just one in a long series of emails that district officials received from Verkada and its third-party sellers during the first few months of the year, many of them offering to drop off demonstration products or provide Amazon gift cards and Yeti ramblers in exchange for attending sales webinars.

A day after that email was sent, hackers announced that they had breached Verkada, gaining access to live feeds at hospitals, schools, and company offices.

Motorola Solutions, Verkada, and the other companies mentioned in this article, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A marketing email reads: "Verkada's plug and play security solution, which qualifies for ESSER II funding, provides schools with the tools they need to respond to the COVID-19 public health crisis, including remote accessibility, analytics, and alerts when activity is detected. Whether leveraging features like Face Search for contact tracing or Crowd Notifications to enforce social distancing, schools can proactively protect their students and staff. Please take 30 sec to RSVP (as we're limited to 100 people) Verkada has offered to send a YETI Rambler or a $25 Amazon Gift Card (your choice) in appreciation of your time. Have a great day!"

A March 8th marketing email from Verkada, which encourages administrators to attend demo sessions for their camera surveillance tool. The company specifically mentions the products qualify for federal emergency funding.

“Unscrupulous vendors are taking every single technology they can think of and offering them to schools as if it’s going to make them safer,” Lia Holland, campaigns and communications director for the privacy group Fight for the Future, told Motherboard. “The push for surveillance of children in every aspect of their lives, especially in schools, just keeps accelerating and it’s an incredible threat to children’s lifetime privacy, their mental health, and their physical safety to deploy these technologies that are often racially biased.”

Neither states nor the U.S. Department of Education have published detailed data on exactly how local districts have spent their relief funding, so it’s unclear just how successful the surveillance vendors’ marketing strategy has been. But the companies have found at least a small number of buyers and convinced them to provide glowing testimonials.

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Given the cost of the surveillance equipment being offered, it’s easy to see why the relief funds are so appetizing to the sellers.

The Godley Independent School District in Texas, for example, purchased 51 Verkada cameras and software licenses for a new building in June 2020 at a cost of $82,000, according to records obtained by Motherboard. The original cost would have been more than $100,000, but the district received a discount from the vendor.

While Godley ISD didn’t use relief funds, the purchase demonstrates what a large chunk of the money a single surveillance project can suck up—it was equivalent to 45 percent of the $182,000 in COVID-19 relief funds the district has received so far, according to federal grant records.

The relief money is intended to help districts implement remote learning systems, reopen schools, reduce the risk of virus transmission, and provide extra aid to low-income, minority, and special needs students. Surveillance vendors have interpreted those purposes liberally.

SchoolPass is one of several companies that have taken the opportunity to sell automated license plate reader (ALPR) systems to schools, going so far as to host webinars for district officials during which experts explain how to apply for and access the new federal funds.

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The company explains that by tracking cars as they enter and leave school property, schools can ensure that students are physically distanced when they’re dropped off, thus reducing the risk of transmitting the virus.

What’s not clear is what happens to the ALPR data, and who else—including local police and federal agencies—may have access to it. The company and districts that use SchoolPass did not respond to requests for comment.

What’s not clear is what happens to the ALPR data, and who else—including local police and federal agencies—may have access to it. The company and districts that use SchoolPass did not respond to requests for comment.

As Motherboard has previously reported, ALPR data is uploaded into vast databases that are then used by cops, private investigators, and repo companies to track people across the country—in some cases, illegally.

Motorola Solutions owns two of the largest license plate databases through its subsidiaries Vigilant Solutions and Digital Recognition Network. It’s not clear from the company’s marketing material whether the location data scooped up by the ALPR systems it sells to schools are added to those databases.

Despite vendors’ proclamations about student safety and well-being, research shows that the increase in surveillance is likely to have a severely negative effect on students.

A recent study of more than 6,000 high school students conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Washington University in St. Louis found that students attending “high surveillance” schools were far more likely to be suspended and have lower math achievement rates than students at low-surveillance schools, and they were less likely to go to college. The study controlled for other variables, such as rates of student misbehavior.

It also found that the burden fell particularly hard on Black students, who were four times more likely to attend a high-surveillance high school.

“There’s actually no evidence that it works,” Rory Mir, a grassroots advocacy organizer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard. “What there is clear proof for is how this technology is biased and disproportionately impacts more at-risk students, and it creates an environment where students are constantly surveilled. It’s treating students like criminals and making money while doing so.”