Arizona school faces flap over security technology

Officials at the Royal Palm Middle School in Phoenix plan to continue with a groundbreaking pilot project that uses face-scanning technology to recognize registered sex offenders and missing children, despite complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union that the technology has been known to single out innocent people.

Nedda Shafir, director of community services for the school, said officials there have every intention of moving ahead with the program. Because it is only a pilot, she said, there is little risk in trying it out–especially when the program already has received vocal support from members of the sheriff’s office, as well as state Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne.

Two cameras scan the faces of people who enter the school’s office. 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.

“Certainly we all want to keep children safe, but installing face-recognition technology in schools will not achieve that aim,” said Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union. “At a time when Arizona is facing an enormous budgetary shortfall, we should not be wasting precious education and law enforcement resources on a technology that has been shown not to work and which may well result in false positives.”

In a letter sent Dec. 17 to Horne and other education officials, the ACLU argued that tests of the technology both in the lab and in real-world conditions–from the streets of Tampa, Fla., to airports across the country–have all been failures. The systems have both failed to identify the real targets and generated many “false positives” in which innocent people were identified as criminals, the group’s letter said.

“Even if we are unrealistically optimistic and assume a false positive rate of just 0.01 percent, or one in a thousand, the police will be called to the school many times a month because some parent, student, or visitor has set off the alarm,” it said.

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.”

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. He was not available for comment on the ACLU’s letter.

See these related links:

Hummingbird Defense Systems Inc.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office

Arizona Civil Liberties Union

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