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RealNetworks gives away facial recognition software to make schools safer

Former music giant hopes its program will help protect kids on campus.

SAFR recognizes a face through the connected camera.

A happy emoji with a score of 80 out of 100 appeared on the screen as Max Pellegrini, president of RealNetworks, smiled into the camera. His name and age also appeared on the screen.

Pellegrini is giving a demonstration of the former music giant's latest venture, facial recognition software designed to make children on school campuses safer. RealNetworks' program, called SAFR, was released Tuesday for free download on the company's website for kindergarten through 12th grade schools in the US and Canada.


President of RealNetworks Max Pellegrini demonstrates how SAFR works.

Marrian Zhou/CNET

The move to facial recognition marks a radical transformation for RealNetworks, formerly a streaming-music service before a series of lawsuits, reorganizations and assets sales forced the company to look elsewhere for growth. The software is intended to combat a dramatic rise in school shootings, as a fierce debate continues over how to keep children safe from on-campus gun violence.

"When tragedies like the Parkland [shooting] happened, it just seemed to us as parents that we can do something good for society [with this technology]," said Rob Glaser, CEO of RealNetworks and former Microsoft executive. "One of the things we heard from the schools was that [they] don't have a lot of budget, so we say let's just create a version for free that any school can use."

As companies wrestle with privacy and convenience issues related to facial recognition, I sat down with Glaser and Pellegrini to discuss what makes their software different.

How does it work?

The program isn't intended to interact with the children. It's for adults, specifically staff and parents. It's been in testing for the past six months, guarding students at the University Child Development School in Seattle, where Glaser's own children attend.

The software is mainly used during school time when entrance is restricted to protect students' safety. After adults register their face and name at an iPad kiosk, school gates automatically open when connected cameras verify their identity in the school's database. Adults can opt out of the system and buzz in manually, but Glaser said that roughly 300 to 400 people voluntarily registered in the system.

The school's front desk used to monitor cameras and buzz people in, but the process usually took a long time, said Paula Smith, head of school at UCDS.

"Our school is in a very urban area and huge density [of population] come into this neighborhood. We weren't able to give families badges and have them be lost," Smith said. "It's nice to have this software and have access [for staff and parents]. It also frees up the front desk to take care of the kids."

Real says its facial recognition technology has a 99.8 percent accuracy for Labeled Faces in the Wild test, a database of face images designed for studying the problem of unconstrained face recognition. The company's algorithms received a high ranking from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a research agency under the Department of Commerce.

About data security and privacy

To address privacy concerns, SAFR encrypts all facial data and it can be deployed in the cloud or used locally without internet, Real says.

"Data stays in the school; there's nothing in the cloud," Pellegrini said. "We get statistics, but we don't get the faces."

To put it in simple terms: A fingerprint is generated for each face, and the software matches it to information stored in a database hosted by the school. This way, if one school database is hacked, the malware is unlikely to spread.

However, the program does face challenges, especially as children's age differences come into consideration.

The pilot at UCDS registered only staff and parents in the system because its students are in kindergarten through fifth grade and always escorted by adults. But when it comes to teens who are more independent, it's unclear how the technology can navigate challenges like parental approvals and privacy protection for minors.

"We're going to learn how schools that are further up in the age range want to use the system," Glaser said. "You might think a high school would register kids in the system so they can come and go."

In regards to privacy concerns, Pellegrini emphasized that the company isn't interested in making money off of data collection.

"We don't want to be [in] the game of the government security," he said. "We want to be very respectable [to] privacy."

Real makes its SAFR free to schools, but it has ambitions to make money by looking beyond schools.

The next step

After launching the software for schools, Real looks to tap into commercial markets, introducing premium versions of SAFR this fall.

Pellegrini said that its facial recognition technology can apply to many public places -- office, stadium, gym club, concert hall, movie theater and more.

The company is also thinking about launching a premium version for schools, Glaser said, adding that the free version will stay fully functional.

"This is our launch to get [onto] the map, to get visibility," said Pellegrini. "[At the same time,] we want to tackle something that's very meaningful."

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