Editorials, Opinion

Is facial rec school security’s future?

Marion County announced this week that it plans to add facial recognition technology to its schools in the near future, in partnership with Rank One Computing. The idea behind the upgrade is to use the tech — which matches the facial features of a visitor to a database of images to identify the person — to pinpoint potential threats to the school or students inside.

In the vast majority of schools, visitors — or anyone wishing to enter the building after the first bell rings — have to be buzzed into the front office, where they are supposed to sign in and state their business. The facial recognition technology would identify each visitor based on images collected of students, parents/guardians and vendors and pull up any alerts associated with that person, such as that a student seeking entrance is currently suspended (and maybe looking to cause trouble) or the parent wanting buzzed in recently lost custody and shouldn’t be granted access to their child.

It’s an … innovative approach to school security. Before other counties decide to follow suit, some questions must be addressed.

The first deals with privacy, images and consent.  The school is likely to already have images of the students on hand: Some schools use photo IDs, but if nothing else, they have access to yearbook photos. Parents, guardians and vendors, however, would have to give consent to have their picture taken and uploaded to the database. (And likely need to give consent for their child, too.) That might cause problems.

What if a parent refuses to allow the school to use their child’s photo for the database, even though the school already has a picture on file? Will that child be removed from school? If an adult refuses to let the school take their picture and use it for facial recognition, is that person forbidden from entering the school building? Will school officials scrape social media, archived video footage or other online sources for images anyway?  If the latter happens, are there any legal repercussions?

Those are just potential challenges one might encounter during the school day — but how would all this work for extracurricular activities? All sorts of community members come in for afterschool events, plus students and families from other counties, too. Would each one of them have to get past the facial recognition software? Or would it be turned off after hours? How does that bode for security?

The last concern is the one Rank One Computing CEO Scott Swann tried to dismiss: Facial recognition has been proven to be biased.

Swann seemed to scoff as he said “that was then” — as if “then” was decades ago. And while you can find studies on the technology’s discrimination as far back as 2002, there are at least two studies, from 2018 and 2019, that show facial recognition technology still misidentifies people with alarming frequency.

 Facial rec software — from an array of different companies — accurately identifies white males most consistently; it inaccurately identifies female faces more often than male faces and darker-skinned individuals more often than lighter-skinned individuals.

A “misidentification” can result in a false positive — when someone is linked to an image that is not of them. As police have attempted to use facial recognition more and more in law enforcement efforts, this often means that the software matches someone to a mugshot or a picture on a wanted list, but the photo is of someone else.

In 2019, a UK field test of facial recognition on a crowd resulted in 42 matches to wanted criminals. Of those 42, officers on scene dismissed 16 matches as not being credible, but detained 22 individuals (they lost four in the crowd). Of those 22, only eight were correct matches.

In a school context, this might mean that a student running late for class is barred entrance for being mistaken for a suspended or expelled student, or a parent is detained or not allowed to pick up their student because the software thinks they are someone else.

Perhaps Marion County’s rollout of facial recognition technology will be a huge success — or perhaps not. But Monongalia and Preston counties should wait before trying it themselves.