In a desperate effort to put an end to student shootings, U.S. schools are willing to try almost anything to improve security. Across the nation, facial recognition systems have been sold to schools with the promise they will identify problematic parents, expelled students, and criminals. But there is little proof these systems can do that.
“These companies are taking advantage of the genuine fear and almost impotence of parents who want to protect their kids,” Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, told The Washington Post, “and they’re selling them surveillance technology at a cost that will do very little to protect them.”
Facial recognition systems are often plagued by accuracy problems, especially when used with children. At best, the technology is a placebo to ease the worries of parents. At worst, it will cause more problems for the schools.
Questioning Facial Recognitions Reliability
Facial recognition systems simply don’t provide low enough false acceptance/false rejection rates to identify people in places places where large groups travel through on a regular basis.
A UK police force found that a facial recognition system had a 92 percent false positive rate when they used it at a major sporting event. The South Wales Police used the technology at the June 2017 Champions League soccer final, where it flagged 2,470 attendees as “suspicious.” Out of those alerts, 2,297 were false positives. The force admitted that the technology isn’t 100 percent accurate, but stands by its use.
“…Since we introduced the facial recognition technology, no individual has been arrested where a false positive alert has led to an intervention and no members of the public have complained,” the SWP wrote in a public statement.
The problem with facial recognition technology is that it requires very specific environmental conditions, including intense lighting and near-perfect camera positioning, to work well. Accuracy also drops dramatically when identifying people wearing hats, scarves, or heavy makeup.
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Furthermore, facial recognition has historically poor performance for identifying people of different races. The technology is particularly problematic for Black women, who encounter up to a 35 percent error rate, and Asians. In these instances, false identifications could result in legitimate visitors to a school being barred entry, or worse, having the police called on them.
Facial recognition is still a work in progress, and until the technology is able to work in adverse conditions and remain accurate when identifying people of all genders and races, its use needs to be limited to specific areas.
Facial Recognition has a Place
Facial recognition does still has potential. In a closed environment for 1-to-1 matching, such as identifying a ticket holder at a stadium or concert against a previously enrolled photo, facial recognition is useful. But, when it comes to security and trying to identify suspicious individuals, schools can’t rely on a technology that only has an 8 percent accuracy rate.
However, it’s not clear if the companies selling this technology to schools are concerned with how well it works. As the Post points out, these companies are “an expanding web of largely unknown security contractors” who “say little about how they designed, tested, or safeguarded their facial-recognition systems because, they argue, it is proprietary information.”