Face-scanning technology designed to recognize registered sex offenders and missing children has been installed in a Phoenix school in a pilot project that some law enforcement and education officials hope to expand.

Two cameras, which are expected to be operational this week, will scan faces of people who enter the office at Royal Palm Middle School. They are linked to state and national databases of sex offenders, missing children, and alleged abductors.

An officer will be dispatched to the school in the event of a possible match, said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

“If it works one time, locates one missing child, or saves a child from a sexual attack, I feel it’s worth it,” said Arpaio, a tough-talking sheriff who has previously gained notoriety for his chain gangs and prison-issued pink underwear.

Civil libertarians have raised red flags about the idea, pointing to potential privacy violations. Biometrics experts say facial recognition programs are not foolproof.

“There are huge privacy concerns. I’m also troubled by the fact that the technology is not proven,” said Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union.

Chengjun Liu, a professor and researcher of facial recognition technology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said facial recognition software is promising but can have reliability issues.

Variables such as lighting and facial expression can affect the accuracy of the applications, he said. “There are a lot of challenges,” Liu said, but the systems do have potential.

Ken Kaplan, engineering director for Phoenix-based Hummingbird–which donated the system at Royal Palm–said most mug shots or snapshots can be used to pinpoint a person accurately. He said false positives are rare, but cautioned: “You can fool it. It’s not perfect.”

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne came out in support of the pilot program Dec. 11, saying he would seek funding to have the cameras, which cost between $3,000 to $5,000 apiece, placed in every school in the state.


Hummingbird Defense Systems Inc.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office

Arizona Civil Liberties Union