Details on the AI gun detection tech SEPTA is installing in 300 surveillance cameras

This is ZeroEyes’ first public transit rollout of the service, which has DHS anti-terrorism designation.

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

SEPTA will begin using artificial intelligence technology on some of its security cameras in an attempt to reduce gun violence on subway platforms.

The service, from Conshohocken-based ZeroEyes, includes both software and monitoring. It’s got the Dept. of Homeland Security stamp of approval as an anti-terrorism service, which also means the company and transit authority have reduced liability if anything goes wrong.

SEPTA plans to roll out the program at subway stations in January for a 6-months pilot program. This is the first time ZeroEyes tech will be utilized across a major transit system, the company said when announcing the contract last week.

The transit authority board gave the program the okay at this month’s meeting, as part of the company’s effort to keep riders safe.

Violence on SEPTA has risen in recent years, with an 80% jump in reports of assaults and robberies from 2019 to 2021, per The Inquirer. The uptick led SEPTA to seek out partnerships like the one with ZeroEyes, agency spokesperson Kelly Greene said, along with a series of other responses.

“SEPTA had been searching for this type of technology to test out as another tool to keep riders and employees safe,” Greene told Billy Penn. “We talked to other tech companies, as well as businesses that are using it, and ZeroEyes is a good place for us to start, especially since they have a local presence.”

Founded by Navy SEALs and veterans in 2018, ZeroEyes has been based in Conshohocken from the start, but its clients extend beyond the region. The roster includes:

  • Beaver County’s South Side Area School District
  • Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota
  • Subaru, FedEx, and Verizon
  • Seminole County School District, in Florida

The six-year old company was already looking to expand to mass transit, said cofounder Sam Alaimo, who pointed to “steadily increasing” crime rates on public transportation in major U.S. cities.

New York, Chicago, and Charlotte have also faced increased violence in recent decades, according to an August study by the Mineta Transportation Institute, although things have recently gotten better in certain areas.

Transit crime in NYC is “8.6% lower this year than it was in 2019,” an NYPD chief said in September. In Philadelphia, violent crime on SEPTA over the first three months of the year was 15% less than compared to 2021, according to KYW.

But Philly officials are concerned with reducing the use of guns on SEPTA after a series of incidents this summer and fall where firearms were used at BSL and MFL stations, and even on trains.

How is the gun detection supposed to work?

ZeroEyes’ claim to fame lies in two things.

  • The software: Called the DeepZero AI system, it’s built to be integrated into preexisting security cameras and recognize brandished firearms in seconds. When that happens, it sends an alert to law enforcement and other designated recipients.
  • The service: Referred to as the “24/7 Operations Center,” this offers a check on the AI. Military-trained monitors verify the DeepZero system has correctly identified a raised gun, then alert the appropriate law enforcement contacts.

The initial AI alert is advertised as coming within 3 to 5 seconds of someone flashing a gun, and the human monitor report happens in under a minute, per the company. The idea is to spur a swift response that can shut down violence as soon as possible, or even before it starts.

Aspects of the system are similar to services offered by firms like Omnilert and Arcarithm, though ZeroEyes has the added quality of being a SAFETY Act-designated service.

The SAFETY Act is a Department of Homeland Security program that aims “to ensure that the threat of liability does not deter potential manufacturers or sellers of antiterrorism technologies from developing” such programs, by “creating a system of ‘risk management’ and a system of “litigation management'” in the case of an act of terrorism.

Providers of tech with this DHS designation gain protection from financial liability if sued over its use. They will never have to pay punitive damages, for example.

No facial recognition, yes ‘cyclorama’ simulations

Some camera surveillance software used by government agencies has been the subject of criticism over built-in bias, but there’s no facial recognition at work in ZeroEyes AI according to a press release about the program’s announcement.

“ZeroEyes’ A.I. does not perform any facial recognition, nor receive, record, store, or share videos or images of any person,” the release says.

The company is relying on its tech lab, which includes “full cyclorama green screen coverage to simulate our clients’ live sites,” said cofounder Alaimo, who is also ZeroEyes’ chief revenue officer.

A cyclorama is a panoramic picture of a scene, viewed from inside the image. This workspace allows the company to simulate responding to the brandishing of a gun in a SEPTA station. The simulations Alaimo refers to appears to address the problem that arises because there’s not a lot of usable footage from the beginning of shootings. Algorithms need examples, and lot of them, to make smart determinations, and they’re less smart if they don’t have a sufficient well of data to draw from.

Using 1% of the cameras already watching SEPTA riders

No new cameras are being installed explicitly for this project, even as SEPTA’s network of cameras continues to grow.

The ZeroEyes system will be piloted on approximately 300 cameras at stations along the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, per spokesperson Greene, including those on “platforms, stairwells, concourse corridors,” and elsewhere.

SEPTA has already made moves to up use of its video surveillance. In May it announced a new Virtual Patrol Unit, to be made up of eight workers. They will be tasked with surveying the system’s 30,000 cameras across stations and vehicles, with the goal of making more informed decisions about where to send patrol officers, and getting them to the areas they’re needed most.

A SEPTA street entrance for the Broad Street Line

A SEPTA street entrance for the Broad Street Line

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn

What makes for a successful pilot?

It’s clear that a reduction in gun violence at SEPTA subway stations, and a quicker response time to deter or reduce the violence, is the overarching aim.

But it’s unclear how much of a reduction the agency hopes to see, and how officials will measure that. Is it fewer shootings overall? Fewer deaths? Fewer injuries? More arrests? All of the above?

“SEPTA plans to develop metrics for evaluation as the six-month pilot gets underway,” spokesperson Greene told Billy Penn.

Even in serious situations, developing key metrics as a study period unfolds is not considered ideal, Carnegie Mellon software engineer Mark Kasunic notes. In a Department of Defense sponsored presentation, he recommends defining performance standards that help to “explicitly” determine the effectiveness of a program before implementing it.

ZeroEyes was somewhat more specific about what it would deem a successful pilot.

“If the detections prevent gun-related violence, accelerate arrests, and result in overall reduced crime on the SEPTA system, the program will be considered an unqualified success,” said Alaimo, the company cofounder.

What happens if SEPTA does deem the program a success?

SEPTA already has some ideas on how to expand ZeroEyes’ use, though they depend on how the partnership has gone after six months of use.

First, it might bring ZeroEyes to other SEPTA sites and vehicles: think buses, rail stops, and trolley stations, per spokesperson Greene.

The next step could also be increased coordination between the soon coming Virtual Patrol team.

“Both the Virtual Patrol and ZeroEyes initiatives can help us take a proactive approach to security by monitoring our existing, extensive camera network,” said Greene. “We’ll determine how the two programs can complement each other as they roll out in the coming months.”

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