CHEYENNE – After successful pilots of facial recognition technology in a Wyoming school and at the chief information officer’s office, a facial recognition technology aimed at stopping school shootings could be heading to live school trials.
Seattle-based software and media company RealNetworks has been working directly with Wyoming officials to test out its facial recognition technology, which integrates with camera systems already in place to screen who gets into schools, government offices or events centers.
The technology, called Secure Accurate Facial Recognition – SAFR, for short – is designed to recognize staff, students and visitors in real time. Then, with deeper integrations, it could be used for a student to unlock a door, or for staff to access a staff-only area.
In other words, smile for the camera, and if you’re in the database, you’re in.
When first announced in July last year, Wyoming was used in a news release to show the wide range of political spectrum that might be hunky-dory with a technological end to school shootings when gun control isn’t locally supported.
The release quoted former Gov. Matt Mead as saying Wyoming is committed to technological innovations. Such statements became an oft-repeated war cry for a man who spent most of his eight years in office trying to broaden Wyoming’s economy to enfold the tech sector so it wouldn’t be so dependent on energy, tourism and agriculture.
Wyoming Chief Information Officer Tony Young was also quoted in the release, and called the partnership with RealNetworks “exciting” as the groups quickly evolved the systems together.
“SAFR provides the opportunity to utilize existing camera systems to intelligently scale and achieve an accurate understanding of who’s entering a school campus,” Young said. The technology pairs with or supplants existing school identification systems with encrypted data of all facial data and images to secure privacy.
In an interview with the Wyoming Business Report, Young said the problem with security cameras as used now is that they don’t do much to prevent bad stuff from happening. As a technology advocate, he said he’s onboard with RealNetworks’ technology, which utilizes machine learning and other high-tech methods of real-time identification.
For instance, Young said that if someone walks onto school grounds with a rifle, the system could recognize it, lock down the school within milliseconds, notify the police automatically and track the shooter from camera to camera.
“Given the proper control and restraints, this could … undoubtedly be a big part of school safety across the country and world,” Young said. “I’m a tech guy, so I’m on that side of the table.”
But the technology comes at a cost at a time when Wyoming is also locking down its challenged budget. Young said implementing the technology across the state would cost $750,000 per year – and that doesn’t include new cameras, processing servers and more to make it work.
According to Young, the funding request made it to the legislative session in a footnote added to the supplemental budget by Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, but the House voted down the request.
“It could come back up in the Senate,” Young said in late January. “It might not be doomed yet.”
Young compared the expense to what it might cost to hire one or two school resource officers at every school that would monitor security feeds with less accuracy than a machine.
The system can automatically detect “chaotic behavior,” like flailing arms, that could denote a fight. It can then trigger a text alert to designated staffers, who could check on the potential disturbance.
Young and his team had different cameras on hand and were testing capabilities of the software in house, but they also put it through its paces at a school during the pilot phase.
Not just for schools
The technology could also be used to monitor, for instance, an energy industry conference, a government meeting or a rock concert at an event center somewhere in the state.
The company’s website for the technology promises “actionable insights” into guests’, VIPs’ and fans’ actions at events that could negate the need for ID badges. It could also allow automation for facility entry for crew or VIPs.
In an interview with the Wyoming Business Report, Mike Vance, the senior director of project management at RealNetworks, pointed out buy-in from traditionally gun-toting states like Texas and Wyoming. His boss echoes the sentiment.
“We feel like we’re hitting something there can be a social consensus around: that using facial recognition technology to make schools safer is a good thing,” said Rob Glaser, CEO of RealNetworks, in an interview with Wired Magazine.
In Wyoming, the company tested the technology within the administrative area of one school that Vance didn’t name because the school “isn’t talking about it publicly.”
Young identified the school as the Wyoming Girls School in Sheridan. The state describes the school as “a therapeutic and educational facility for the treatment of court-ordered delinquent girls ages 12-21 years.”
The technology wasn’t piloted directly on students.
Vance said the pilot demonstrated the published 99.8 percent accuracy of the technology and otherwise ran it through the paces. He said people would test the technology by doing things like covering an eye or coming through a checkpoint at an odd angle.
It also allowed officials to test functionality like the ability to open a door automatically for specific people in the system. Or to send a text or SMS notification or if a certain person came along – like someone older than age 18 not registered to the system.
“They wanted to test out how that works and train themselves to create their own actions,” Vance said, indicating that RealNetworks worked more closely with Wyoming than with most of the 100-plus schools now evaluating it.
Live trials? Or Big Brother?
With the pilot now in the rear-view, Vance said the technology could be heading to live trials in one or two Wyoming schools.
But before that happens, the schools need to do their due diligence. Vance said when similar technologies haven’t worked, it’s because students or a community feels forced into them. Which means it takes longer to advance to a rollout phase as districts seek local buy-in through policy and community actions.
“Otherwise, it feels more like police state capabilities, instead of something that creates a more secure learning environment,” Vance said.
Which is a term not far from what critics of such technologies call SAFR.
William Michael Carter, an assistant professor for Creative Industries at Ryerson University in Toronto, derided the technology in an opinion piece, likening it to an Orwellian “Big Brother.”
According to Young, though, legislators misunderstand the technology, thinking it’s all about facial recognition that could harm personal privacy. He said people tend to not appreciate the government using that kind of technology, especially on their children.
“I can understand that,” Young said. “It seems like Big Brother. What we heard on the floor today is concern over children’s pictures and facial recognition and things of that nature. General privacy concerns were a stumbling block to a lot of people.”
Still, many Wyoming schools and school boards are interested in being part of the proof of concept and live trial, if it does move forward, Young said.
“Where does all this go? Is the data kept, stored or purged?” Young said schools asked him. “Frankly, you can program it to do all that stuff.”
But Young believes the technology can be utilized responsibly to improve safety and efficiency at schools.
Vance said the key to making the technology work is creating ethical regulations around it. After all, it’s a technology that can have biases built into the code and could store more data than many people are comfortable with sharing.
“I think we’ve talked through quite a bit of policy discussion with the State of Wyoming,” Vance said. “Overall, the reaction has been pretty positive toward this technology.”