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After shooting, MSU adding AI surveillance to detect threats, count people

MSU security dashboard
MSU’s new security software includes a “security desk dashboard” allowing for real-time monitoring of cameras across campus. (Michigan State University records)
  • Michigan State University security upgrade plans include a sprawling new surveillance system that will utilize artificial intelligence
  • The technology overhaul follows a 2023 campus shooting that exposed weaknesses in the university’s security systems
  • MSU is spending $9.8M to upgrade security networks and create a new unified operations center

EAST LANSING — Plans for nearly $10 million in security system upgrades at Michigan State University following last year’s deadly campus shooting include a new video system that will use artificial intelligence to enhance surveillance. 

A consulting firm hired by MSU to assess the response to the February 2023 shooting recommended the university use AI to monitor campus cameras, but experts have raised privacy concerns and warned of potential misuse. 

Omnicast video software, created by a California-based firm called Genetec, uses "analytics" to detect barrier breaches, track individuals as they move across campus, count crowd size and read vehicle license plates, among other things, according to more than 1,200 pages of bidding and contract documents obtained by Bridge Michigan through a Freedom of Information Act request.

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Records show MSU hired Moss Audio Corp. of Grand Rapids to install and configure the system under a $5.2 million purchase order finalized in June.  

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That includes $2.9 million for equipment, $1.8 million to license the Genetec "unified security platform" software and $412,837 for an initial 26 weeks of labor, according to the documents.

The university is also building a new Security Operations Center where law enforcement officials will be able to monitor video cameras, alarms and other equipment in real time. Combined, the projects are expected to cost $9.8 million.

The upgrades will allow MSU “to stay up-to-date with leading security technology while keeping our campus and community safe,” said Dana Whyte, a spokesperson for the Department of Police and Public Safety.

It will likely take two or three years to complete the expansive technology upgrades. Renovations for the new Security Operations Center will be "completed in the coming months," but the centralized operations hub is already up-and-running in an interim location, Whyte said. 

Among other things, the new security center gives MSU a “direct line of contact with Ingham County 911 Central Dispatch, 24/hours a day, 7 days a week,” she told Bridge in an email. 

The university has more than 2,000 cameras across its campus and is working to add 200 more. 

‘Deep-learning models’

The planned upgrades were already in the works before last year’s campus shooting in which a lone gunman killed three students, injured five others and exposed weaknesses in MSU's security systems. 

Among other things, it took police nearly three hours to comb through a sprawling campus camera system to find images of the shooter to share with the public during an ongoing communitywide manhunt. 

Meanwhile, students had sheltered in place as terror gripped the campus, prompting numerous false reports that the gunman had been spotted on campus again, even though police would later learn he had already fled on foot before killing himself more than four miles away.

Unlike most Michigan colleges, MSU lacked a unified system to review live camera feeds or quickly pull up footage in the wake of the shootings at Berkey Hall and the student union, authorities said at the time. 

Berkey Hall
Berkey Hall, where a campus shooter first opened fire in February 2023, is now locked each evening at 6 p.m. and requires a key card for entry at night. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

The ongoing technology overhaul will give MSU those capabilities — and more — through a combination of new equipment and software that will utilize artificial intelligence. 

Among other things, the new system will monitor doors, elevators and other parts of campus in real time, with the ability to automatically verify a card-access picture ID against live video of an individual attempting to enter the building. 

"Dynamic graphical maps" will allow authorities to select any part of campus and automatically pull up any cameras with a view of that location, according to a “master service agreement” between Moss and MSU. 

License-plate reader cameras will be able to track vehicles across campus and add suspect vehicles to a "hotlist."

The Genetec system that Moss will install must be configured to automatically focus security cameras on perimeter breaches, and detect or track specified objects or stopped vehicles, according to the documents.

A "people counter" function using "deep-learning models trained on person detection" will allow cameras to automatically count crowd numbers. The system, which can differentiate between adults and children and even people in wheelchairs, allows authorities to monitor the counts on a live dashboard.

That technology will help police ensure "safety and security" at large campus events "by being able to assess the overall population on campus," said Whyte, with the department of public safety. 

Privacy concerns

While MSU is touting the upgrades, there are privacy concerns associated with such technology, said Mark Ackerman, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies how people and technology interact with each other.

AI-based surveillance systems are often “not very accurate in low lighting,” such as at night, and some have been shown to have an implicit bias against minorities, Ackerman said. “They're very problematic about seeing certain kinds of hostile intent and …whether the police should respond or not respond.” 

The technology can also be used to identify “suggested threats,” such as a person known to participate in protests, rather than actual threats, he said.

For students seeking a sense of security after last year’s shooting, using security cameras is “important,” and “we have to have them,” said 

Devin Woodruff, a senior studying public policy and vice president for government affairs for the undergraduate student-body government.

But the use of AI is “a little bit of a concern,” said Woodruff, who is Black. “I just don't want any discrimination happening.”

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Asked whether MSU police have taken steps to assure the AI technology is used appropriately, Whyte pointed to a university guidance issued last year that encourages "responsible and ethical practices."

The school is also considering additional protocols for AI use in a security context, Whyte said. 

“The department values holding ourselves to a higher standard within the industry of public safety,” she told Bridge. “When creating new policies, we want to make sure that we are keeping community feedback and recommendations in mind, in order to create a more inclusive and safe campus, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. "

‘World class security’

As of March, MSU had spent $2.2 million on the software and equipment upgrades since last year, $168,000 to renovate the Security Operations Center and $1.5 million for new security cameras, university spokesperson Emily Guerrant told Bridge.

As announced in the wake of last year’s shooting, MSU is also working to install locks on all classroom doors and had spent $1.2 million on that effort through the end of the year, with plans to spend up to $3.5 million more, Guerrant said.

The university has also spent about $11,000 to expand active violence training sessions through online courses. Those are now optional after the university backed off an initial pledge to make them mandatory for all students and staff.

MSU hired Moss Audio for the security system overhaul over several other bidders, including i2G of Plymouth, People Driven Technologies of Byron Center, Presidio of Grand Rapids and Milestone Systems of Minnesota. 

In its winning bid, Moss said it would work with Genetec to deliver a "world class security platform" for the university.

The Grand Rapids-based firm, which employs about 110 people, cited its previous work on similar video system transitions in Wayne-Westland schools and Gun Lake Casino, along with additional projects for Grosse Pointe schools and the cities of Ludington, Royal Oak and Kalamazoo.

Moss also promised free certification training on the Genetec security software system for 10 MSU employees, at a cost of $3,500 per day, calling it proof "we are committed for the long haul."

A consulting firm hired by MSU last year to assess campus security in the wake of the shooting recommended the university consider using AI video surveillance to "enhance your ability to identify abandoned packages, large groups, and high activity in unusual areas at inappropriate times."

MSU security live monitoring
An example of “live monitoring” that will be capable under MSU’s new video surveillance system (Michigan State University records)

AI video technology is "an excellent tool for use by investigators" and could also be used to protect "cultural property" on campus, such as public art and museum collections," the firm, Security Risk Management Consultants, of Ohio, wrote in an October report

The report called for more security cameras on campus, new classroom locks and new policies to make it easier to lockdown university buildings, among other changes that MSU was already planning to make. 

The firm suggested MSU create a "video retention policy" and agree on a "video surveillance philosophy."  The university is currently working to finalize a video security systems policy, Whyte said this week.  

MSU should also have protocols and policies for who can access the footage, how long the footage is stored and when that footage can be shared with outside entities, said Ackerman, the U-M technology expert. 

While universities and other institutions are increasingly using AI to improve security, human review remains important, said Kentaro Toyama, a U-M professor who studies digital technologies' limitations.

Police, he warned, can become “so used to relying on the AI that they stop being critical about whatever information they are being fed by it.”

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