As America grapples with a seemingly endless series of shootings, school districts across the country are partnering with security companies to introduce highly advanced surveillance technology that goes far beyond CCTVs and passcodes. In New Mexico, an elementary school now uses ballistics detection technology that can spot shooters. In Arkansas, a school board recently approved $200,000 for face recognition systems to match visitors against criminal databases. While administrators have an obvious interest in keeping schools safe, the latest proposal in this trend is being pitched directly to students: automated security robots to patrol hallways.
Last month, Knightscope announced a contest inviting students to write an essay about how the the Silicon Valley-based security company’s robots could make them safer at school. “Let’s work together on a solution while the ‘adults’ keep bickering,” the pitch states, offering two free years of services from Knightscope and its robots to the winning student’s school. Stacy Stephens, the company’s VP of Sales, talked to Gizmodo about the proposal.
“When the tragedy in Florida took place, we said, ‘okay, we’ve got 15 states in the US covered,’” Stephens said. “We’ve had several successes with our technologies in corporate campuses and retail shopping centers, now would be a good time to get some schools on board.”
The surveillance capabilities of a single Knightscope K5 robot are staggering: 360-degree livestreaming video, license plate recognition, thermal imaging, object detection, signal detection to locate all nearby cellphones and smart devices, and of course, autonomous motion. The robots aren’t armed, though Stephens recommends programming them to patrol entrances and exits to thwart shooters who strike while people are distracted.
“Students are already in school, robot’s patrolling around a campus while everybody’s inside the school, why is there a person here at 9:30 in the morning?”
The K5 robot, he explains, can use object recognition to detect intruders in off-limits areas, automatically sending alerts to either law enforcement agencies or school authorities. The K5 robot can similarly send alerts if it notices flagged license plate numbers. Anyone monitoring the bots can then view the livestream, using everything from thermal imaging to signal detection to determine if there’s a problem and exactly where it is.
“Just having that extra little bit of time could mean an absolute, incredible effect on the end result,” Stephens said.
The K5 robot offers round-the-clock surveillance and a suite of features designed to detect potential threats. But the reality is that school shootings, though covered frequently, are a statistical anomaly. More students die in bike riding accidents each year than at the hands of school shooters. So unless Knightscope’s robots are serendipitously awarded to one of the statistically rare schools with a mass shooting incident, how do will schools know if they’re working?
“I think it’ll be fairly easy to quantify the use of the machine,” Stephens said. “Vandalism of vehicles, burglary of vehicles, assaults, fights on school campuses, those are all things you can begin to look at and be a little bit more holistic.”
Stephens claims schools can take a comprehensive view of less serious, more common incidents, making note of whether they decrease after employing the K5. But while a surveillance robot may cut down on absenteeism or schoolyard fights, civil liberties experts still balk at the idea of using such advanced surveillance on young people to police typical, juvenile behavior.
In March, Gizmodo spoke with Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, on the use of advanced surveillance technologies in schools. Levinson-Waldman pointed out that surveillance technologies themselves can have inaccuracies and that schools across the country routinely punish students of colors more harshly than white students for the same infractions. As federal agencies are grappling with accusations of asymmetrically applying surveillance technology, how will schools handle the same problem?
“This is not for every location,” Stephens admitted. “It’s not for every school [or] for every class or [every] classification,” he said, referring to elementary, versus middle school or high school. “You have to have some very stringent control put in place before you can adopt this kind of technology.”
What that control entails will be up to the schools, which will have to answer some tough questions. Will the robots collect both audio and video? How long will they retain that data? When should police be notified for non-violent offenses and what should be submitted as evidence, potentially staying with students for their entire lives? Stephens said many of the particulars are “client-dependent” and Knightscope won’t require schools to sign NDAs, as at least one security company has when partnering with schools.
“There’s gonna be some IP stuff we would want to hold back on for obvious reasons, but just explaining to somebody how the tech works, where the [data’s] being stored, how frequently we do our cybersecurity [checks] to ensure data is secure, that’s all stuff that everybody’s gonna wanna know about.”