Controversial in crime, facial recognition apps connect parents, summer campers
A self-proclaimed "paranoid mommy," Robin Cox was stressed about her 12-year-old son Brayden Kelly's first week away from home at a summer camp.
So Cox turned to facial recognition technology that has been made available to a growing number of parents who want to keep tabs on their children through photographs at summer camps, schools and sports tournaments. Waldo Photos, an online recognition platform, sorts through hundreds of uploaded photos to identify subscribers' children in them.
Cox received texts with photos of Brayden when the software identified her son while he was at the Michindoh Conference Center in Hillsdale, which runs Christian summer camps, earlier this summer. The texts let Cox know her son was safe, she said.
"It made me feel a lot better," the 40-year-old nurse from Toledo said. "He didn't know anybody. None of his friends were there. I thought, 'Oh my god, is he going to be OK?'
"I open the photo, and I see him having fun. It shows him playing nine square and swimming. It's kind of nice to have."
At least three Christian summer camps in Michigan now offer the service, as federal regulators review rules over the use of heavily scrutinized biometric data and facial recognition technology.
Cox does note she first was hesitant to sign up: "This is like having a computer search for your kid. It scared me a little bit. What kind of database were the photos stored in? I checked the website, and there was not much information."
Her husband, however, encouraged her to pay the voluntary $15 for the service. When she dropped off her son at the Hillsdale camp, staff reassured her the software is contained to the program, Cox said.
For years, facial recognition has been in the hands of the masses to unlock smartphones and tag friends on social media. In December, Delta Air Lines Inc. introduced facial recognition at all of its international gates in the Detroit Metropolitan Airport to help travelers more quickly check bags, get through security and board their flight.
Detroit police's use of facial recognition and surveillance technology, however, has come under fire recently, as concerns grow over privacy and studies suggest it is more likely to identify incorrectly people with darker skin than those with lighter pigmentation. It prompted state Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, last month to introduce a bill for a five-year moratorium on the technology.
The Federal Trade Commission last month also began a review of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, requesting comment on whether the use of "personal information" that requires parental consent should include biometric data.
To identify a child in a photo, Texas-based Waldo uses a recent photo of the child that parents upload to its app for comparison, said Rodney Rice, the startup's founder and CEO.
"It’s not a fingerprint," he said of the technology. "It’s not portable. Our model uses a reference image and compares it to other images. It’s unique and proprietary. The information we utilize, the alphanumeric hash, it's not useful anywhere else across the internet."
The software saves the photos to the cloud through Amazon Web Services, though parents can request photos of their child be deleted in its app.
Still, such services, especially those that target children, could be a slippery slope, said Sarita Schoenebeck, an associate professor of information at the University of Michigan.
"It makes it so that children no longer have a space where they’re operating privately. When we’re in a place, we have a sense of how public or private it is," she said. "If you're home, it's private. If you're in a park, it's somewhat public, but if you're having a conversation on a bench, it's perceived as private. (Facial recognition technology) completely violates those expectations of privacy that people have had for such a long time. That can be confusing."
Companies also might sell data collected from facial recognition or link it to other platforms in ways the user may not have wanted, Schoenebeck said.
Waldo in March integrated with Ann Arbor-based CampDoc, an electronic medical records software system that works with 1,200 summer camps and schools.
The partnership allows parents — if they wish — to immediately log into Waldo after uploading their children's medical records for camp to CampDoc. The platforms also are working to sync uploaded headshots of campers to streamline the process, said Michael Ambrose, CEO of DocNetwork, CampDoc's parent.
"We have a big focus on privacy and security; they do, as well," Ambrose said. "Headshots are becoming so important, especially for large camps and programs that administer hundreds of medications. Having access to that image really helps."
Waldo doesn't sell its data, which is why it charges a subscription fee, Rice said. He also has no plans to sell the app, he said, after he sold in 2004 the online contractor marketplace, HomeAdvisor, that he co-founded.
"The platform that we built in my mind’s eye would create a world where people could live in the moment with high-quality photography that memorializes those moments and forms those memories over time," said the father of three, who explained Waldo was "born out of personal pain" from his own challenges collecting photos of his children from camps, school events and tennis matches.
Waldo might be a more private alternative to what some camps are using now, Rice said. Michindoh, which has offered the service for the past two years, previously uploaded its hundreds of photos to a website that did not require an access code to view the galleries, said Debbie Herring, Michindoh's registrar. Waldo requires two-factor authentication and allows users to download a photo at no cost, even without the facial recognition service.
Cranhill Ranch, a campground that runs Christians summer camps in Mecosta County's Rodney, began using Waldo this summer. About half of its summer camp parents are using the service, said Jesse VanderBand, Cranhill's marketing, promotions and communications director. Cranhill hasn't had any concerns about the technology, though it did speak with other summer camps about the service before offering it, he said.
"We were looking for a way to share the excitement of camp with parents in a safe, personalized way," VanderBand said in an email, adding the camp traditionally only posted photos online at the end of the week on social media.
Waldo operates at no cost to the camps, and it gifts a percentage of the money from each subscription to the camp for scholarships.
The service isn't perfect, though it has improved in its three years of services, users said.
Cox said she searched through the galleries and found photos of her son where his face was covered that Waldo was unable to identify. But it can catch children in face paint, Herring said, and even sometimes when the side of their faces are visible, said Teri White of Ann Arbor, whose used Waldo for the past two summers while her three children attended Springhill Camps in Evart.
"It's a game-changer," White said. "It's a lot of fun to see their smiling faces and to have all their camp pictures in one place and organized."