School Safety

Q+A with a Facial Recognition Expert

Facial recognition technology is more frequently being utilized in K-12 schools. But how exactly does facial recognition work?

With school security a top priority across the country, school officials must consider which tools will make their campus as safe as possible for students and staff. Facial recognition technology is more frequently being utilized in K-12 schools. But how exactly does facial recognition work? What are the benefits? How can schools utilize this technology?

We spoke to Mike Vance, Senior Director of Product Management at RealNetworks, the company behind SAFR K-12, a facial recognition software to get a clearer picture of how their product can boost school safety.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

SAFR is available to all individual K-12 schools in the U.S. Why is SAFR free?

Mike Vance: Most of us are parents. I've got a nine-year-old and a 13-year-old. We knew that, especially when we initially started talking to schools, that cost would be an issue for schools. Because it runs in the school, the only cost for us was the developing of the product. We don't have cloud storage costs. So that allowed us to offer it to schools for free.

It was principally driven by us being parents and knowing that we had a solution that can be really helpful for schools. We do charge for it in other venues.

Can you give us a general overview of how SAFR works?

MV: Basically, SAFR works with any IP based video camera, and those are security cameras that have been sold in the last 10 to 15 years. So as long as we can pull in a video stream from a video camera, then we can do facial recognition.

We run on hardware in the school to monitor that video feed or whatever video cameras the school tells the software to look at. There's also the database that the school maintains on who should or should not be in the school, and those are unique to either the school or the district.

We have some built in categories — there's “no concern,” “concern,” or “threat”. The schools or the districts can create rules based off of them. If a person of concern shows up — let's say it's divorced parents, one parent shouldn't be there — then it sends out a certain type of message to the following people. If it's a threat, like if it's somebody that has made a credible threat against the school or an abusive ex-boyfriend, or girlfriend or spouse, then you can do everything from lock doors to call the police. It can do all kinds of different things, whatever the school wants it to do. That all happens locally in the school.

In what ways are K-12 schools across the country utilizing SAFR?

MV: When we first started off in schools, we were thinking more about some of the high-profile incidents where an individual or a couple people come into the school and commit acts of violence. It turns out that that's not the primary interest for schools. It’s the day to day needs of a school around making sure that the people who are in the school belong in that school and keep the wrong people out.

A lot of schools are putting indoor buzzers or vestibules or other ways of making sure that aside from drop off and pick up time that people have to check-in to the school. But the schools really don't account for the amount of work that that generates for people behind the desk. You typically have one or two people behind the desk, who are doing everything from photocopies to shuffling kids off to the school nurse. And now all of a sudden, they've got to be answering people and the traffic from the door buzzers is pretty significant.

What a lot of schools do is they will register people who come there pretty frequently in the system on a voluntary basis — and that can be everything from parents to volunteers to UPS delivery people, but it's the people that they've already pre -screened. And then when that person comes up to the gate or the door, it automatically opens. The schools that we're working with estimated that we cut their buzzer traffic by 80-85% and so that allows the people behind the desk to concentrate their attention on the people that aren't there on a regular basis. Those are the people that you really want to make sure that you screen.

With increased surveillance technology, facial recognition software raises concerns about student privacy. What does SAFR offer to address these concerns?

MV: First of all, with SAFR, it's really designed, not to spy on people and keep track of where they go. It's not incredibly useful for that. The data that we generally capture is around people who are known to the system. The way that SAFR is designed is more around proactive alerts for people who shouldn't be there or for convenience.
The schools that we're working with are really using it to look at the adults that are coming into the school, not the students themselves. So to our knowledge, no school has put more than a couple students into it and the students that they have put into it have been students that they're really concerned about — expelled students or things like that. We're not really offering it up as a surveillance product and it's not being used, to the best of our knowledge, as a wholesale surveillance product.

We definitely hear the concerns and we're really careful about the types of engagements that we have as well as the way that we recommend our product.

Does SAFR have access to the data collected by the software?

MV: The way that it's designed is that the school or whoever licenses SAFR really owns that data. Each licensor has their own unique set of individuals in their database. As an example, let's say a sports stadium licenses us in the same area that a high school licenses us. Let's say parents are registered through the high school and they go into the sports stadium. Unless they've registered already at the sports stadium, the sports stadium would have no idea who they were. Each database is unique.

We don't have access to data; we can't see pictures or names or anything else like that. If for some reason, somebody wanted to get a court order to see some of that information or things like that, we really wouldn't have access to it. We have to refer them to the school or the district.

What kind of equipment is needed to run SAFR?

MV: There are security cameras, which schools typically already have. Then it runs on a dedicated computer in the school and the power of the computer really just depends on how many cameras and how many people you're trying to look after.

A heavily trafficked entry way with one or two cameras — you can get away with a pretty reasonable computer running that system. If you want to do like 25 cameras, it's not just entrances but stairwells and other places like that, that's where you need something a little bit beefier. We work with server grade hardware.

What are some key practices schools should do before they implement facial recognition on their campus?

MV: I think that the most successful engagements that we've seen with schools is first and foremost to engage with the community.

We highly recommend that schools or districts talk to everybody from the parent teacher organization to student body organizations in high schools and teachers. Explain what they're trying to accomplish, explain why they're considering facial recognition, and get input on that. Try to engage with the community as much as possible so that it's the right fit. We certainly don't recommend putting it in if the school or the district or the community doesn't feel like it's a good fit.

The other thing that we highly recommend is privacy policies. Making sure that the system is as much as possible, purely opt in. Obviously, in the cases of security, you're not going to ask an abusive ex-spouse to stop in and enroll their face to make sure that they can't come in campus. So in carve outs around security, that's where you probably have these exceptions. But having a clearly stated policy on who's mandatory in the system and who's not.

And then simple things that I think a lot of people just don't consider much but if you're going to put this system in, obviously, it's just like medical records or anything else like that, it’s highly personal information. Make sure that it's encrypted, make sure that passwords aren't written down or handed out and shared, so just general best practices about information and data security that some people might not think about.

For more information on SAFR for schools including webinars discussing the product more in-depth, visit their website at To request the software, contact SAFR.