Nashville Schools to Test Face Recognition Technology

Nov. 2, 2007
75,000-student district seeks to ID people unfamiliar and barred faces

The Nashville school system plans to become the first in the nation to use security cameras that spot intruders with controversial face-recognition technology.

Starting Dec. 1, the 75,000-student district will equip three schools and an administration building with cameras that can detect an unfamiliar face or someone barred from school grounds, said Ralph Thompson, assistant superintendent for student services.

"This will give us an edge in providing safety for our students and teachers," Thompson said of the $30,000 camera system. Several intruders have entered Nashville schools in the past year, he said.

A successful test in Nashville could prod other schools to try the technology, said Peter Pochowski, executive director of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers. He said Nashville is the first to use face-recognition cameras.

Nashville will take digital photos of students and workers at the three test schools and store them in the new camera system, Thompson said. When a camera spots a face in a school that it cannot match to a stored photo, it will alert security. The system also could detect suspended and expelled students and fired employees, Thompson said.

The technology is denounced by civil libertarians and has been discarded by police in Tampa and Virginia Beach, which found face-recognition cameras in downtown districts did not help in spotting wanted criminals.

"Schools should not feel like some sort of prison," said Melissa Ngo of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union said that because the cameras identify people, their widespread use could let authorities "track you throughout the day."

Schools have grown more open to security technology since the Columbine shootings in 1999, though many lack money for high-tech devices, said Ken Trump, a school safety consultant.

Many urban schools have networks of security cameras that are monitored from a control room. Some use radio-frequency ID cards to track students as they board school buses and enter buildings. Others check visitors' names against databases of sex offenders.

An elementary school in Phoenix installed face-recognition cameras in 2004 to find sex offenders but never turned them on because of concern they would flag innocent people, said Carol Donaldson of the Washington Elementary School District.

Jonathon Phillips, head of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's face-recognition program, said the cameras have problems in poor lighting or if they photograph at an angle and cannot fully view a face. A test last year in a German subway found that cameras spotted only half of the test subjects, Phillips said.