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A Face in the Crowd

Maricopa County, Ariz., tests facial recognition technology in schools to identify missing children.

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 Big Brother here."

Despite the ACLU request, Arpaio and WESD officials said the equipment would remain in place and the pilot would continue for at least 90 days. After 90 days, Arpaio's office will draft a report to the school board and determine the next step.

Pending favorable results, Arpaio said he would like to expand the system to include more schools. "I would like to get this camera in every school, including elementary, high school, charter schools, etc.," he said. "Not only can it help locate missing kids, it can inform a school when a sex offender is present."

Although it may seem unlikely that a missing child would show up at a school, Campbell said it does happen. "Most missing children are abducted by noncustodial parents, so they take them to a new community and change their names. But they have to get them in school. They have to go on with their lives," he said. "Phoenix is kind of a transient community, so people will come to a large city like Phoenix, enroll the child at school, and it could be a missing kid from another state."

Campbell admits program expansion is critical to improving its effectiveness. "It's good to have at Royal Palm, but the chance of a missing child walking into one individual school is kind of slim," he said. "If you put it in all the schools, we're bound to find kids and [other] people that shouldn't be there."

If more schools participate, Campbell said they would determine their most effective camera placement. "They could put it where anybody that walks onto campus would walk by it, or could keep it in the office," he said.

The cameras cost between $3,000 and $5,000 apiece. Since most schools are already wired to a network, however, they need little more than the camera to participate, Campbell said. "The databases are housed and maintained at the Sheriff's Office, so schools don't need their own database or server. They just basically need the camera."

Should the program expand, Arpaio said he hopes to obtain grants or sponsors to help schools pay for the technology. "I know there's a budget problem in schools, so I will ask others to help so schools can afford to participate," he said. "If we can save one kid, I think it's worth it."
Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at