PHOENIX -- Face scanning technology designed to recognize registered sex offenders and missing children has been installed in a Phoenix school in a pilot project that some law enforcement and education officials hope to expand. Two cameras are expected to be operational next week at Royal Palm Middle School. One will scan faces of people who pass through the main entrance, while another will be in the school office.
The cameras are linked to state and national databases held at the sheriff's office of sex offenders, missing children, and alleged abductors.
An officer will be dispatched to the school in the event of a possible match, said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. However, not everyone will have to pass by a camera; the school has multiple entrances.
"If it works one time, locates one missing child or saves a child from a sexual attack, I feel it's worth it," said Arpaio, a tough-talking sheriff who has previously gained notoriety for putting prisoners on chain gangs and issuing them pink underwear.
Civil libertarians raised red flags about the idea, pointing to potential privacy violations. Also, biometrics experts say facial recognition programs are far from foolproof.
"There are huge privacy concerns. I'm also troubled by the fact that the technology is not proven," said Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union.
Chengjun Liu, a professor who studies facial recognition technology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said facial recognition software is promising but can have reliability issues.
Variables like lighting and facial expression can affect the accuracy of the applications, he said. "There are a lot of challenges."
The systems do have potential, but are considered more reliable for identity verification. In fact, the US government plans to incorporate face-recognition scans into a huge new border crossing program for foreign travelers that begins in 2004.
Independent biometrics tests also have found that face-recognition systems in highly controlled settings, like a border crossing, work better than if the cameras try to scan crowds. That was the method used in a notorious deployment in Tampa that was scrapped this year after it led to no arrests.
Ken Kaplan, engineering director for Phoenix-based Hummingbird Defense Systems Inc., which donated the comparison system used at Royal Palm, contends that most mug shots or snapshots can be used to accurately pinpoint a person. He said false positives are rare, but cautioned: "You can fool it. It's not perfect."
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne came out in support of the pilot program Thursday, saying he would seek funding for the cameras, which cost $3,000 to $5,000, to be placed in every school in the state.