A woman walks into the office at Royal Palm Middle School in north-central Phoenix to register a new student. As she does so, a camera picks up her image, which is transferred the image to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. Here, facial recognition technology compares the image to a database containing pictures of parents known to have abducted children from their custodial parents.

Although the child is registered under a false name -- because she has been missing from her custodial parent's home for six months -- the facial recognition technology matches the parent and child with profiles in the registry. An alarm sounds at the Sheriff's Office, an office representative confirms the possible match and police launch an investigation.

This scenario isn't real, but it may be soon. Royal Palm Middle School is the first school nationwide to install cameras to detect faces of suspected child abductors, sex offenders or missing children, and instantly alert police. If the pilot is successful, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office hopes to expand the program to all 800 schools in the county.

Making Matches

For nearly two years, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has worked with Phoenix-based Hummingbird Defense Systems, which donated $350,000 worth of equipment to the office for pilot projects. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his team tested the company's facial recognition technology to verify identities of suspects booked into county jails, and for various other programs designed to monitor inmates, according to Lt. Tim Campbell, Sheriff's Office spokesman. More recently, the Sheriff's Office and Hummingbird's CEO concocted the idea of using the technology in schools.

The Washington Elementary School District (WESD) uses Darcomm Network Solutions, a company that works closely with Hummingbird, for design and ongoing maintenance of their wide area network, according to Frank Frassetto, MIS director at WESD. Hummingbird asked Darcomm to recommend a school district receptive to a beta test of its technology. Darcomm immediately suggested WESD. "They thought of us because we are a very large system and have a solid network," said Frassetto.

Hummingbird approached WESD, which agreed and searched for a volunteer school. Mike Christensen, principal at Royal Palm, volunteered for the pilot, even though the campus has reported no problems among its 1,180 seventh- and eighth-graders.

After obtaining agreement from the superintendent and school board, two cameras were installed in the Royal Palm office. "If someone was going to bring a child in and register that child in school, they would have to walk into the office," said Campbell. "The camera could potentially make a hit on the abductor and child at the same time if we have both photos in the database."

Campbell said facial recognition technology appeared the most effective for their purposes. "It's more practical to have a camera there that can scan everybody walking in than to try to get everyone to give a fingerprint or look into a retina scanning device," he said.

Via the wide area network, camera images are transferred to the sheriff's office, where Hummingbird's facial recognition software scans 28 facial features and matches them against images in the databases. Approximately 2,000 missing children, 500 suspected child abductors and about 4,000 sexual predators are in the database, according to Campbell. Images not matching the databases are immediately erased.

Facing Opposition

The facial recognition pilot at Royal Palm recently drew protests from the American Civil Liberties Union, which calls the technology invasive and unproven, and asked Arizona education officials to remove the cameras and refrain from the launch.

"I'm not concerned about the ACLU protest," said Arpaio. "They seem to think innocent people will be placed in a database. They don't understand that when the picture is taken, it is erased in seconds if the person is not a suspect. I don't see any

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer