Some Utah schools will soon use A.I. software to detect guns

The Utah State Board of Education approved a $3 million contract that will allow schools to install ZeroEyes, an A.I. gun-detection program.

(ZeroEyes) After a several-month delay, the Utah State Board of Education in early December greenlit a $3 million contract with AEGIX Global to administer gun-detection software ZeroEyes to interested Utah schools.

Some Utah schools will soon install artificial intelligence software they hope can help can “see” guns before a person brandishing them ever steps foot into a school building.

After a several-month delay the Utah State Board of Education in early December greenlit a $3 million contract with AEGIX Global to administer the gun-detection software to interested Utah schools.

The Salt Lake City-based security software company was first selected in August to install a product that it is authorized to distribute, called ZeroEyes, pending final approval from the Utah State Board of Education.

The delay in approval was due, in part, to lawmakers’ concerns over the accuracy of the ZeroEyes program, which works by layering on top of a school’s existing camera system to detect visible guns.

If the A.I. program spots a possible gun, ZeroEyes officials say, images will instantly be shared with a ZeroEyes operations center; there is one outside Philadelphia and one based in Hawaii. The company says they are staffed 24/7 by U.S. military and law enforcement veterans.

If they determine a threat is valid, they dispatch alerts and information to local staff and law enforcement in three to five seconds, including a visual description, gun type and last known location, according to ZeroEyes.

“AEGIX is excited about the progress,” said Tim Rush, a spokesperson for the company. They will have meetings with the state that will lay out the specifics of the rollout plans, but they need to “coordinate and confirm with USBE before we can discuss in detail.”

Schools must apply for the software

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Security cameras at West High School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. The ZeroEyes program works by layering on top of a school’s existing camera system to detect visible guns.

With the contract approved, USBE’s School Safety Center is now working on a competitive application process for interested schools, said Rhett Larsen, USBE school safety specialist. AEGIX will manage the installation and training with schools that are selected for the software.

The first step is creating a “rubric” that specifies what technology schools must, at a minimum, already have in place for ZeroEyes to function properly, such as cameras, according to Larsen.

The grant won’t cover expenses for any essential technology required for the software to work, Larsen said, though he noted the funding may still cover other necessary costs.

The USBE is also working to define the criteria used to select schools applying for the software, Larsen said. Installing ZeroEyes is not a requirement for schools, explained Larsen, but one of several grant options available to improve school safety.

Larsen said he hopes the application and rubric will be finalized by the end of January or early February. Once complete, schools can begin applying.

Why the initial delay in contract approval?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, discusses school safety legislation during a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.

The $3 million allocated for gun-detection software is part of a larger $75 million school safety bill, HB61, passed in the spring legislative session

The remaining $72 million was intended to finance various school safety projects. School districts were required to submit their project proposals by Sept. 15 for pieces of those grant funds.

Some school districts however apparently applied for a piece of the remaining $72 million to pay for ZeroEyes software — a move that board members advised in a Sept. 15 letter would likely be rejected, because that wasn’t what the remaining money was set aside for.

Any districts that applied for such a use were allowed to amend their plans and resubmit, the board noted, since the letter was dated on the day of the application deadline.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, on Sept. 18 provided insight into why the letter was sent, voicing frustration that he believed AEGIX was “leveraging” its contract to secure more than the agreed-upon $3 million.

“I was totally naive to what I’ve come to affectionately refer to as the education industrial complex,” Wilcox said at the time, during an interim School Security Task Force meeting. “We have a contractor that signed an agreement here in Utah that seems to be leveraging that contract to push for way more than what we intended.”

He warned school districts not to enter into any long-term contracts for the firearm-detection software.

“If we do that, we’re wasting a lot of money that doesn’t need to be spent, and that will prevent us from being able to accomplish what we need to,” Wilcox said, “and, at the very least, will have cost your [district] money that could be applied elsewhere.”

AEGIX CEO Chet Linton previously confirmed in a statement that some districts had submitted grants for firearm-detection software, “rather than wait on the specific funding for ZeroEyes” intended under HB61.

He said “more districts in the state than expected” wanted the software. However, ZeroEyes representatives previously told the Salt Lake Tribune that $3 million was enough funding to cover every school in the state.

“Our only role and primary objective is to help Utah schools become safer,” Linton said.

What about false alerts, or child privacy?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Security cameras at East High School in Salt Lake City. Staff at ZeroEyes operation centers can only see what cameras see "when the A.I. thinks it’s found a gun," said Rob Huberty, co-founder and chief operating officer of ZeroEyes.

False identifications do occur, Rob Huberty, co-founder and chief operating officer of ZeroEyes previously told The Tribune.

While the A.I. software can “see” as well as the human eye, it can’t always distinguish the difference between real guns and fake guns or other objects, Huberty said. That’s why staffers review the images; if the A.I. mistakes a leaf blower for a gun, they can disregard it before any calls to authorities are made.

And staff only see images if a potential gun is identified, Huberty said, meaning they are not constantly monitoring footage of students at school. Operation centers “never get to see a camera at any moment other than when the A.I. thinks it’s found a gun. It’s like a snapshot in time,” he explained.

Detected images are stored in an encrypted format, the images are not personally identifiable, and they are never sold, he added.

ZeroEyes must adhere to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which protects the privacy of student records. Videos recorded by schools are considered educational records and under most circumstances may not be released to the public.

“We are FERPA-compliant,” Huberty said. “We want to protect everybody’s data, everybody’s information.”

Utah has had at least 17 reported instances of gunfire on school grounds since 2013, resulting in four deaths and five injuries, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization dedicated to gun violence prevention.