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RealNetworks, the Seattle company best known for pioneering streaming media in the early days of the web, is deploying a surprising new product today. The company says it will offer a new facial recognition technology, called SAFR, for free to K-12 schools to help upgrade their on-site security systems.

SAFR can be used with the same cameras that traditional surveillance systems to recognize students, staff, and people visiting schools. RealNetworks says that in addition to security, the tool can also help with record-keeping and “campus monitoring.” The technology is compatible with Mac, iOS, Android and Windows.

RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser in 2017. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

“SAFR from RealNetworks is highly accurate facial recognition software powered by artificial intelligence,” the company explains on the SAFR site. “It works with existing IP cameras and readily available hardware to match faces in real-time. Schools can stay focused and better analyze potential threats such as expelled students, and those who pose a threat from within and outside the school.”

The offer follows a series of fatal shootings at U.S. schools, but also comes amid a groundswell of concern about the ethical and privacy implications of AI-powered facial recognition technology.

RealNetworks says the system includes privacy protections and doesn’t seek to identify people by race.

To use SAFR, schools will keep a database with photographs of people authorized to be on campus. If the system doesn’t recognize a face, it notifies a member of the staff. The facial data and images SAFR collects are encrypted as a privacy protection and remain in the school’s possession. The technology is designed to work even in rural schools with limited internet connectivity.

Schools in the U.S. and Canada can download and use SAFR for free starting Wednesday. One Seattle elementary school has already implemented SAFR as part of a pilot program: University Child Development School is using the technology to identify authorized staff and parents and automatically grant them entry.

RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser is the reason that particular elementary school came to pilot the software. His three children are students. When RealNetworks began developing facial recognition technology, Glaser asked the school about its security measures at the front gate. He found out that they used a security camera monitored by a person and asked if the school would like to test out software to do the job automatically.

The school agreed, and the pilot went smoothly, Glaser said in an interview with GeekWire.

“A lot of the trials were very successful but this one was particularly remarkable for two reasons,” Glaser said. “One, the community loved it and embraced it and it was everything we would’ve wanted in terms of a happy customer, a vibrant community embracing it. That all felt right. Then after about two or three months into the trial, the horrible tragedy of Parkland happened … and the whole question of school safety, which has obviously been an issue in this country for a while, shot to the top of the charts.”

The gate at University Child Development School opens when SAFR identifies an authorized person. (SAFR Photo)

Glaser is aware of the concerns privacy and civil rights activists have raised about facial recognition technology. The American Civil Liberties Union has repeatedly asked Amazon to stop selling its Rekognition software to law enforcement agencies, warning that the technology amplifies racial biases and will lead to overreaching surveillance.

In a letter to Amazon, the ACLU claimed, “facial recognition technology is biased, misidentifying African Americans and relying on databases built on a history of discrimination in our criminal justice system.”

To combat those concerns, RealNetworks did not train SAFR to identify ethnicities. The system does pick out faces, ages, genders, and sentiment but is racially agnostic.

“We didn’t want our system to be at all useful for people that wanted to use it for any kind of ethnic or racial profiling,” Glaser said. “If you want that for a computer vision system, go somewhere else.”

Glaser believes technology companies need to take an active role steering facial recognition and ensuring it isn’t abused. He supports Microsoft President Brad Smith, who last week called for more government regulation of the technology.

“I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU and have been for many years,” he said. “For myself, I’m comfortable having this technology in my life. I’m not a technophobe, of course, by definition of what I do, but I’m also not a Pollyanna-ish technophile either … People who are technologists and product people who have ideas about how it should be used need to be engaged.”

SAFR was also piloted by private companies over the past few months. In the fall, RealNetworks plans to launch a paid, commercial version of the technology.

RealNetworks was founded in Seattle in 1994 by Glaser, a former Microsoft executive, under the name Progressive Networks, a reference to its original plan to distribute politically progressive content. The company currently develops consumer media services including the RealPlayer video player and RealTimes automatic video-creation technology, as well as mobile technologies and casual games.

RealNetworks began developing facial recognition as a feature of RealTimes. Glaser describes it as a “moderately successful product” which makes video montages out of the photo and video libraries on users’ phones. About a year ago, RealNetworks started developing facial recognition to identify people in the stories.

The University Child Development School choose to limit SAFR to adults. It only identifies guardians and staff members. But it is possible for schools to use the technology to identify students.

“I think this is a topic that needs a lot of care in how we bring the technology to market,” Glaser said. “We’re focusing on a socially positive use case … and that approach is an important part of how we want to be in this market and differentiate ourselves.”

See the SAFR technology in action in GeekWire’s TLDR news show above.

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