Weekly Feature

2018-06-21 / Local News

Maryvale ponders facial recognition software to bolster security

by BRYAN JACKSON Cheektowaga Editor

In the wake of deadly school shootings throughout the country, Western New York districts are considering enhanced security measures in their buildings, and now, Maryvale could be the latest area school to implement cutting-edge — and controversial — surveillance system with the ability to spot specific faces and weapons out of real-time video feeds.

Orchard Park-based consultant Tony Olivo, whose Corporate Screening & Investigative Group provides risk management and advisory services to the education, health care and legal industries, pitched Maryvale on the Aegis system, a three-pronged security suite combining facial- and shape-recognition tools with a forensic search engine.

Olivo said at Monday’s School Board meeting that he offered free, initial security assessments to school districts in the area following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, adding that three schools accepted his offer, including Lockport City School District, which is on course to be the first school in the world to roll out the Aegis system this coming school year.

He also showed the system at an Erie 1 BOCES conference in 2016. In Maryvale’s case, Superintendent Joseph D’Angelo contacted Olivo about presenting the security suite. Additionally, Depew schools have signed onto the Aegis system.

According to Olivo, the system is one-of-a-kind, developed by a Canadian company, SN Technologies, and built up from counterterrorism technology that’s been used at the highest levels in Europe by agencies such as Scotland Yard and Interpol.

“The foundation of this technology has been used by governmental entities throughout the world. … We have worked to, let’s say, tweak it or develop it for applications in schools and hospitals, but it’s the same development team and everything else. It’s just a different application.”

Basically, Aegis works like this: Districts load images of people, such as those on state sex offender lists, into a forensic search engine, known as Mercury. Aegis works with the schools’ cameras to scan for faces, using a tool SN Technologies calls Sentry, that matches those on the prohibited lists.

If the system makes a match, an alert is sent to a person in the district who can verify the hit. In other words, after the system thinks someone is in the school who is not supposed to be, a human confirms it and then can decide on a course of action such has locking doors, alerting the police or confronting the apparent intruder.

Olivo noted that the system does not actually record video and that information is not stored — unless the system hits a match. School districts do have policies in place already regarding the shelf life of security camera footage. Additionally, another tool in the system, known as Protector, scans for the so-called top 10 guns used in school shootings and alerts the human monitor if the gun enters school grounds.

“Normal facial recognition utilizes mathematics; it’s the distance between the eyes and the nose, the nose and the mouth and those type of things. You have to have a fairly good shot of a face, good lighting, and those types of things, to get a good match,” Olivo told Maryvale board members. “[The Aegis system] is based upon neuroscience, as opposed to computer science. It’s based upon shape and pattern recognition and biometrics, the way the eye sees.”

This makes the technology much more precise, Olivo said. However, follow-up questions on Tuesday to explain those differences further generally solicited vague answers, with Olivo saying he couldn’t dive into many of the specifics on what makes SN Technologies system different — and better — from similar technology because the information is proprietary.

Olivo did offer some clarification.

The technology used by the Aegis system has been vetted by agencies worldwide, and the facial-recognition component relies on a higher standard — a more complex data set, as it were — to determine matches, according to Olivo.

“The lower you set the threshold in the key points and the parts of the face that you’re looking for in the algorithm, the more you’re going to get misidentifications. … With this technology, the threshold’s a lot higher, and it’s a lot more specific, and the aspects that we use to identify a face are a lot more unique and more pinpointed,” Olivo said.

With specifics short due to the proprietary nature of much of the technology, trust appears to carry a high value.

“As close to right as it can, yes, that’s very fair to say,” Olivo said, when asked if much of the what-makes-this-technology better question boils down to the public’s trust that Aegis will be as perfect as it can be.

“Nothing is 100 percent. We could spend $20 million on technology, but if you let the wrong person in the front door of the building, then that system could be fallible,” he continued. “But here’s our thing: If the wrong person does walk in the front door of the building, we want to be able to identify that wrong person, and give you as much possible data, as quickly as possible, so you can respond to that.”

Maryvale, like Depew, would look to fund the system through New York’s Smart Schools Bond Act, an initiative that was passed by statewide referendum in November 2014 that authorized $2 billion in funding “to finance improved educational technology and infrastructure to improve learning and opportunity for students throughout the State,” according to the New York State Education Department.

Installing high-tech security features is one of four potential uses of Smart Schools money, according to NYSED-issued guidance on the act. Projects seeking to use SSBA financing must adhere to NYSED criteria, and districts are required to submit a formal application, called a Smart Schools Investment Plan.

According to NYSED guidelines, that application needs to be reviewed and approved at the state level prior to a district bidding, contracting or expending any SSBA funds, and failure to follow this process would mean schools would not be reimbursed for the work through the program.

The presentation at Maryvale comes on the heels of a letter from the New York Civil Liberties Union to NYSED to review its approval of funding for the Aegis system in Lockport, which came through the Smart Schools Bond Act.

Despite the challenge by NYCLU, Depew Superintendent Jeffrey Rabey, whose district is waiting for approval to acquire the Aegis system using Smart Schools money, is optimistic about the technology’s potential benefit, and is skeptical of the pushback from the civil liberties organization.

“I guess I’m really having difficulty understanding the basis for their concerns, with regard to the profiling, with regard to misidentification,” he said. “It’s not like everyone’s being recorded [or] we’re following people around. It’s only the people that are of concern for the district to be on property, so we’re not profiling, we have a very closed set of people that we would want to prohibit from coming on school property.”

Rabey and D’Angelo acknowledged that detailed frameworks and processes would be needed to govern how people’s faces are added to Aegis’s forensic search engine, known as Mercury, as well as who would have the ability to make those changes. However, neither Depew nor Maryvale have developed those policies yet, leaving the public with an incomplete picture of how the surveillance system would operate locally.

According to Rabey, Depew has some ideas of who would monitor the system, mentioning the security guard at each of the district’s three buildings or the potential for hiring a dedicated overseer.

D’Angelo hoped the board would discuss the possibility of purchasing Aegis at the next meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, July 2.

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