Schools are using biometrics to enhance their efficiency and control students. But some students, parents, and privacy groups are crying foul. Get ready for continuing controversy in cities.
The UK's Protection of Freedom Act 2012 deals with a variety of security measures, including obtaining biometric data from school children. The British civil liberties group Big Brother Watch said in a report issued in January that 40% of schools gathered some type of biometric data. In fact, the group said in a press release that as many as 1.28 million UK children were fingerprinted during the 2012-2013 school year, "many without parental permission first being granted," even though consent is required by the Protection of Freedom Act.
Schools cite a variety of reasons for biometrics. For example, if students must place their finger on a scanner whenever they enter the school, it's easy to determine which students are in the building, and school administrators can quickly determine attendance levels. The old way of taking attendance in class by calling names could eventually end.
Fingerprinting -- which typically involves scanning, not old-fashioned ink and paper -- is sometimes used to verify student identities for purchasing school lunches from prepaid accounts. When the York, Pa., school district began fingerprinting students, some parents weren't notified beforehand. One parent who didn't want her child fingerprinted told WGAL-TV in Harrisburg: "They fingerprinted her today and they never told me anything. She is only five years old."
In Rapid City, S.D., the School of Mines and Technology began a fingerprint scanning pilot to allow students to purchase items without requiring any physical ID. Joseph Wright, the school's associate vice president for research-economic development, told The Telegraph, "What this allows you to do is get rid your credit card, get rid of your wallet, get rid of the items in your purse that could be used to identify you and make purchases or transactions, and really use your own self, your biometrics, as your authentication."
However, students at two UK universities say biometric programs there are discriminatory. Students at the satellite campuses of Ulster and Sunderland universities, which serve foreign students, have been fingerprinted to ensure they attend class rather than work (which they are prohibited from doing under their student visas). The students say only the foreign students are being scanned -- not the native British students.
Instead of taking fingerprints, several schools in Ireland have installed facial recognition technology to take attendance. The Irish Independent reported that it's "easy to track poor attendance or lateness patterns, which would allow for early intervention to nip a problem in the bud. And it overcomes the so-called 'buddy punching' problem, where a student can make a false registration by swiping in someone else's card."
Even more esoteric is palm scanning, where the veins in a hand are scanned via infrared technology. Such a system is being rolled out at schools in Puyallup, Wash. (near Tacoma), as a way for students to pay for their lunches. KIRO-TV said parents were "outraged" and concerned about the privacy implications.
Brian Fox, a spokesman for the Puyallup School District, told the station that it's efficient, reduces fraud, and makes it easy for parents to know how much their children have spent. "It doesn't take a picture of a fingerprint or a handprint; it simply connects the activity of the vein to the number system... where the parents have already given us their Visa number or MasterCard number and paid for lunches."
This is a complicated issue for schools. Does the cost justify the use? Are there significant privacy problems, and what happens to the data?
The Puyallup School District is installing palm scanners in all 32 schools and has spent $38,695 on 71 scanners, KIRO-TV reported. I assume that doesn't include training, maintenance, software enhancements, and other associated costs. Would that money be better spent on such items as textbooks, computers, tablets, and higher-quality lunches?
Just as important, how safe is the biometric data from being hacked? And how is the data being used by the schools and by the companies providing the technology? Will it be integrated into third-party databases?
Though scanning technologies seem esoteric today, more schools will begin implementing them if they improve efficiency and control. Students aren't just losing their privacy. They're losing it in new high-tech ways.
Cities that think scanning will make their schools smarter had better thoroughly evaluate and publicly discuss the implications, because many parents, students, and organizations will equate this technology with George Orwell's 1984.
— Alan Reiter, President, Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing