Monday, 31 January 2011

A Lesson Or Two On Fingerprint Biometrics

In recent years we have seen national news stories about biometrics being introduced in schools, but why are people, particularly parents, protesting against schools introducing biometrics to do everything from check out library books to checking attendance rolls.

Some of the arguments suggest that the parents are unaware of the fingerprint readers being installed in the schools and haven’t been asked to give consent for their child/children to hand over their identity, leaving their fingerprints and biometric information in the hands of the school.

In a paper published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and in consultation with the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) schools are guided, under the Data Protection Act 1998, that parents should be contacted asking permission to store their children’s fingerprint. The Data Protection Act of 1998 doesn’t state an exact age of where there should be parental permission. But the pupil or parent has to be provided with a Fair Processing Notice which contains information such as: the name of the school, the purpose for which the data is going to be held and any information required to make the processing fair, including details on any third parties to whom the data may be passed. The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) also stresses that any school using biometric technology must destroy any records of the pupils biometric information after they have completed their education at the school.  But does all this actually happen in practice?

Fingerprint reading biometric technology is being applied by schools across the UK and around the world in many ways; the most popular in the UK has been for ‘cashless catering’. This is a system where parents pay in advance for student’s school lunches, crediting student accounts with a daily lunch allowance. Students then use this credit to pay for their lunches by registering their fingerprint at the till. The systems are said to allow quicker service in school lunch halls, provide money security and also give anonymity to those who have free school meals. The latter may contribute to a reduction in bullying as children from poorer families are less obvious. Surely this a safer, more efficient environment for our children during school hours?

Another way that fingerprint biometric technology is being used in schools is for automated attendance systems. Students are asked to scan their fingerprint on arrival into school and when they depart for the day, and in cases as they go from class to class. This is for security as well as to try and reduce truancy.  Some schools have gone the extra mile and have replaced the registration system at the beginning of each class. With fingerprint registration there is no possibility that someone else is registering for them, and that’s possible when using smart cards. The school also has very accurate and easily managed data to measure pupil absence and truancy.

Fingerprint biometrics are mainly being used in schools as they as the least intrusive form of taking biometric information. Not only do they provide extra security for our children, reduce bullying and theft in schools and also provide accurate information on your child’s attendance and time management, but they also reduce costs for schools. Although the systems can be expensive they do not need any additional items such as smart cards which are often lost and cost to replace.

With all this in mind can fingerprint biometrics teach us all a lesson or two about their effective use by schools, colleges and universities?

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