Facial recognition tech at schools fuels privacy debate

A private elementary in Seattle is using it to identify parents and allow them in the building.

Associated Press

SEATTLE — Facial recognition technology is being used to increase security at one Seattle school, but the technology is fueling debate about privacy concerns.

The Seattle Times reports that the company RealNetworks began offering the technology free to K-12 schools this summer to improve school security.

It’s in use at the private elementary University Child Development School. The school gave parents the option of adding their face to the database, and so far about 300 parents have done so. If a parent’s face is recognized by the system, the door opens, reducing the need for someone inside the school to answer a buzzer.

Mike Vance, a senior director of product management at the Seattle tech company, leads the team that created Secure, Accurate Facial Recognition — or SAFR, pronounced “safer.”

It took three years, 8 million faces and more than 8 billion data points to develop the technology, which can identify a face with near perfect accuracy. The short-term goal, RealNetworks executives say, is increased school safety.

“There’s a lot of benefit for schools understanding who’s coming and going,” Vance said.

At University Child Development School, the technology acts like an automatic doorman for parents and staff members. If a parent’s face is recognized by the camera mounted above the front gate, the door opens, reducing the need for someone inside the school to diligently answer a buzzer. The system only identifies adults and rejects the addition of children to the group of identifiable faces.

“It’s very convenient,” said Ana Hedrick, whose daughter is in second grade at the school. “It feels safe.”

The rash of school shootings across the country has thrust school security into the spotlight. Some critics, however, aren’t so sure such systems in schools will be effective enough to outweigh the privacy costs.

“There’s a general habituation of people to be tolerant of this kind of tracking of their face,” said Adam Schwartz, a lawyer with digital privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is especially troubling when it comes to schoolchildren. It’s getting them used to it.”

School security is a serious issue, he agreed, but he said the benefits of facial recognition in this case are largely unknown, and the damage to privacy could be “exceedingly high.”

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