Schools Are Investing In Face Recognition. Will It Make Campuses Safer?

Schools are Investing in Face Recognition. Will It Make Campuses Safer?

Schools are investing in security with advanced technology such as facial recognition

As Dr. Larry Barton soberly noted at a security conference in Las Vegas this past February, mass shootings are “the new normal.” For many years, the University of Central Florida professor and FBI instructor tracked the increasing frequency of mass shootings with dots on a timeline. But in recent years, mass shootings became so frequent that the dots on Dr. Barton’s graph formed a single solid line.

Education Week’s log of school shootings reveals at least 13 incidents in 2018 so far, with 97 people killed or injured. How do we stop this unending cycle of violence? The political debate surrounding this issue has become more fervent since the shooting that took 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year. While proposals range from banning all guns to arming teachers on campus, almost every serious plan is somehow divisive, with major opposition from public, corporate and political factions.

But a new layer of security that is substantially more pragmatic is now gaining traction: face recognition.

Consider how much was known about the suspect in the Parkland incident before an Uber dropped him off in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, armed with an AR-15. Parkland’s sheriff, Scott Israel, revealed that the department had received 23 calls about the suspect over the past decade. The calls mentioned a “mentally ill person,” a “domestic disturbance” and more. An unidentified peer counselor alerted the high school that the suspect had inflicted self-harm and “wished to purchase a gun.” The sheriff ’s office received a tip that he had been collecting guns and knives and “could be a school shooter in the making.” According to a math teacher at the high school, “administration had sent out an email warning teachers that [he] had made threats against other teenagers.”

By the time that the suspect was expelled from school, there was enough data to conclude that he posed a very real risk to school safety. Given all the valuable information available, how did an expelled student with a history of making threats and violence end up taking 17 innocent lives? The fact is that data itself is only valuable if it is delivered in an actionable context. By the time the shooter was recognized by a faculty member, walking purposefully toward a school building, it was already too late. Law enforcement officials could only react to a horrible crime in progress.

If the suspect's photograph and details had been enrolled in a school face recognition database, could lives have been saved?

Technology companies are typically contacted by enterprises with expensive problems that need solving again and again. For example, retailers need to identify shoplifters and other criminals on a daily basis across many locations, and face recognition offers large chains massive ROI as well as safer stores. Increasingly, however, the number of concerned administrators, security personnel, campus police and even parents looking to use technology and face recognition to supplement school security has grown.


Face recognition technology has been around, in one form or another, since the 1960s. Starting around 2011, it reached the point where it was fast enough and accurate enough to provide actionable intelligence about persons of interest in real time.

Although many situations play out like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, not all do. What is certain is that in a mass shooting or any other violent crime situation, every second is vital. The sooner that armed security or law enforcement officials are notified, the better chance there is to save lives.

In a campus situation, entrances can be monitored by inexpensive HD cameras posted at distances up to 100 feet. Artificial intelligence automatically scores the facial images captured from live video, selecting the exact angle, facial expression and lighting before matching it against a database at a rate of 25 million images per second. Speed is essential, as match alerts will be automatically routed to campus security or other personnel as needed.

Depending on the type of person matched, face recognition systems can also automatically determine whether to alert others, such as teachers, professors or even law enforcement. Match confidence scores can also determine who receives alerts. For example, some organizations only want to be notified on matches with at least a 95 percent confidence score.

If such a system had existed in Parkland, it might have included disgruntled former employees, expelled students and even banned parents. Based on everything we know now, it would have also certainly included the shooter. The moment he appeared on a face recognition- equipped surveillance camera, the system would have then alerted an armed school police officer or security guard. For such a system to work, school personnel would be trained on how to interpret mobile alerts, how to approach matched persons depending on various scenarios, and more. The training is actually the easy part. Based on experience with retailers and public safety officials, training is easily completed within a half day.

While K-12 schools are increasingly looking to face recognition surveillance as a safety solution, facial recognition also presents colleges and universities with a means of protecting campuses and school events. As San Francisco University has found, face recognition can be used to ensure that only authorized students and personnel are admitted to dorm rooms or school buildings. The technology can also be used to instantly recognize when a known sex offender or violent criminal enters campus grounds.

Facial recognition can also be used to secure school sporting events. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for fans to exhibit violent or dangerous behavior at games. As just one example, at one popular tailgating spot for Nebraska football, law enforcement had to clear around 3,000 people off the property due to unruly behavior prior to the start of a game against University of Miami. Close to two dozen people were arrested. Even if the University banned those individuals from returning, it’s nearly impossible to enforce that ban. But face recognition can typically recognize banned fans, despite hats, glasses, facial hair or other changes in appearance.


To understand why face recognition is necessary for protecting public spaces, look no further than human memory. The human brain was simply not designed to memorize names and details about a large list of strangers. Robin Dunbar, an esteemed evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford University, posits that the upper limit of faces that human beings can match with names is 1,500.

FaceFirst recently conducted a survey that asked whether those tasked with guarding airports and public attractions would be able to remember the names and faces of individuals that posed a threat. Seventy-seven percent said no, and it’s easy to see why. Even a truly gifted security professional can’t possibly be expected to instantly recognize every individual that may pose a public safety threat, including all relevant details and the best course of action to take. This is certainly true at K-12 schools, but doubly true of guards tasked with protecting large university campuses and college sporting events.

While it remains to be seen whether political solutions will help decrease school shootings, one thing is for sure: progress in the political realm will be a long and slow process. Fortunately, we have the technology to start saving lives right now.

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Campus Security Today.


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