SCHOOLS CAN NOW GET FACIAL RECOGNITION TECH FOR FREE. SHOULD THEY ?
LIKE MANY PARENTS in the United States, Rob Glaser has been thinking a lot lately about how to keep his kids from getting shot in school. Specifically, he’s been thinking of what he can do that doesn’t involve getting into a nasty and endless battle over what he calls “the g-word.”
It’s not that Glaser opposes gun control. A steady Democratic donor, Glaser founded the online streaming giant Real Networks back in the 1990 s as a vehicle for broadcasting left-leaning political views. It’s just that any conversation about curbing gun rights in America tends to lead more to gridlock and finger-pointing than it does to action. “I know my personal opinions aren’t going to carry the day in this current political environment,” Glaser says.
So he started working on a solution that he believes will prove less divisive, and therefore more immediately actionable. Over the last two years, RealNetworks has developed a facial recognition tool that it hopes will help schools more accurately monitor who gets past their front doors. Today, the company launched a website where school administrators can download the tool, called SAFR, for free and integrate it with their own camera systems. So far, one school in Seattle, which Glaser’s kids attend, is testing the tool and the state of Wyoming is designing a pilot program that could launch later this year. “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,” Glaser says.
But while Glaser’s proposed fix may circumvent the decades-long fight over gun control in the US, it simultaneously positions him at the white-hot center of a newer, but still contentious, debate over how to balance privacy and security in a world that is starting to feel like a scene out of Minority Report. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where Glaser is a former board member, have published a white paper detailing how facial recognition technology often misidentifies black people and women at higher rates than white men. Amazon’s own employees have protested the use of its product Rekognition for law enforcement purposes. And just last week, Microsoft President Brad Smith called for federal regulation of facial recognition technology, writing, “This technology can catalog your photos, help reunite families or potentially be misused and abused by private companies and public authorities alike.”
The issue is particularly fraught when it comes to children. After a school in Lockport, New York announced it planned to spend millions of dollars on facial recognition technology to monitor its students, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Defense Fund voiced concerns that increased surveillance of kids might amplify existing biases against students of color, who may already be over-policed at home and in school.
“The use of facial recognition in schools creates an unprecedented level of surveillance and scrutiny,” says John Cusick, a fellow at the Legal Defense Fund. “It can exacerbate racial disparities in terms of how schools are enforcing disciplinary codes and monitoring their students.”
Glaser, who says he is a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” is all too aware of the risks of facial recognition technology being used improperly. That’s one reason, in fact, why he decided to release SAFR to schools first. “In my view when you put tech in the market, the right thing to do is to figure out how to steer it in good directions,” he says.
“I personally agree you can overdo school surveillance. But I also agree that, in a country where there have been so many tragic incidents in schools, technology that makes it easier to keep schools safer is fundamentally a good thing.”