ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) - The surveillance videos are often frightening, showing terrifying armed robberies.
According to crime statistics from police, robberies with a weapon have increased 14 percent this year in St. Louis City.
But one local company says it has new technology that stop would-be robbers in their tracks, and the high-tech gadgets could even be used to prevent school shootings.
But does it violate your right to privacy?
Tom Sawyer is with Blue Line Technology, a relatively new company innovating public safety that started in St. Louis.
“What we are doing with facial recognition is we are adding artificial intelligence to the equation,” Sawyer said.
At their office, Sawyer played a guinea pig, while his colleague Gabe Keithley manned the computer to show News 4 how it all works.
When Sawyer walks by, a camera recognizes him as a human being and snaps a clear-as-day-picture. When he wears a mask, though, the system's smart enough to know something's wrong.
If someone's known to the store for something such as robbing in the past, the system puts them in red and can even send out alerts.
Sawyer says it's a lot like having a security guard, but better.
“A photographic memory, yes, and he doesn't take smoke breaks, he doesn't play on his phone, he doesn't irritate customers, he just does his job,” said Sawyer.
Unlike more traditional surveillance video, the technology forces to you look directly into the camera.
“It tells them that we are paying attention and you are probably going to get caught,” Sawyer said.
The technology is in 18 stores around the country, including a handful in the St. Louis area, and it already has a track record.
Last month, police say Karbin Winfield took two good looks at the camera on separate occasions on the same day before police say he robbed the Motomart on Riverview Dr.
“The pictures provided to the police department allowed him to be identified and captured within just a few days,” Sawyer said.
A pair of masked men in Washington state never even made it through the front door because the technology would not let them in.
“Our main goal is to deter,” Sawyer said.
In places it's been installed, such as the 7-Eleven on Kingshighway, store owners say robberies have been reduced 98 percent.
“It’s been over a year, nothing. We don't even call the cops on the little things we used to,” said one store owner.
But supporters say the technology doesn't just protect stores.
St Mary’s High School in St. Louis is the first high school in the country to use it. The system knows each one of the nearly 400 students and staff. They look at the camera, and with a green light, the door unlocks. But the system knows when someone is a stranger and will lock them out.
“It was one more piece that made everyone feel very secure in what goes on in the day-to-day operations of the school,” said Mike England, President of St. Mary’s High School.
It feels like we're always under surveillance. But some people say it takes it too far.
“It’s a change and a shift that undermines our democracy, because everyone becomes suspicious,” said Jeramie Scott with the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center.
He says facial recognition presents real and potential problems.
“You are implementing a technology that pushes us closer to a total surveillance state, and it’s a technology that actually doesn't address the underlying issues,” Scott said.
He worries bias is built in or that it’s ripe for abuse.
“All of a sudden you are in this massive facial recognition database, all because you wanted to go to the store and buy whatever goods you needed that day,” he said.
“We are very cognizant of using facial recognition in a responsible manner, and we understand the concerns when people hear the word facial recognition,” Sawyer said, in response to privacy concerns.
Sawyer says the databases are wiped clean after 24 hours, data isn't tied to your name or ID, but rather assigned a random number and it’s never sold to third parties.
Customers told News 4 that with the system in place, they certainly feel a lot safer.
“It deters people who are up to no good,” said Michael Ulsas, who shops at the 7-Eleven on Kingshighway.
The folks at Blue Line think there could be other areas where the technology could fight crime, for example, on Metrolink.
News 4 asked the St. Louis police department, and they said they had no comment about the technology.
Facial recognition technology is under a microscope right now. CBS news highlighted that the City of San Francisco is considering the first-ever ban. It would prohibit local government agencies, but not the feds or private companies.