School lunch lines in the UK can be fraught: students receiving free lunches may not want their peers to know, lost payment cards mean some go without, and code-based payments leave children at risk of “shoulder surfing”, where others spot their number and use it to buy their own meal.
Fingerprint scanners are being presented as one solution for doing away with this stress. They can be linked to online payments, making busy lunchtimes easier and faster, plus it will save schools from printing ID cards.
A typical secondary school in the UK can end up producing more than 400 new payment cards every year to account for lost, damaged and new intake ones, says Nigel Walker, managing director of biometrics company BioStore. “Biometrics can’t be lost or forgotten, stolen or used by someone else. “When students and staff identify themselves on the system, you can be sure it’s them. This improves a school’s safety in terms of access, security and accountability.”
The Department for Education doesn’t track how many schools use biometric systems, but in 2014, campaigning group Big Brother Watch estimated that more than a million secondary schoolchildren had handed over their fingerprints.
In these hi-tech schools, biometrics – in particular fingerprints but also palm prints – can be used for entering and exiting the main school building as well as classrooms and buses, taking attendance, and accessing lockers, computers, library books and printers. Add in other new technologies such as wearables, and civil rights campaigners fear the result is that surveillance is quietly being normalised in children from a young age.
The Protections of Freedoms Act 2012 states that schoolchildren cannot have their fingerprints taken without written parental consent. Until then even the youngest of students may have had their biometric data captured. “There is no need to retrospectively gain this consent so many children are having their data processed without their, or their parents’, consent,” says Emmeline Taylor, author of Surveillance Schools.
Daniel Nesbitt, research director at Big Brother Watch, says that parents and children must understand what is going to happen with the information, how it will be used and where it will be stored. “Without this information, they can’t give informed consent,” he says.
“The immediate issue is that children may be monitored across a range of areas – potentially including what they are eating to which library books they take out – and this could normalise the idea of surveillance or being tracked from an early age,” Nesbitt adds.
Taylor agrees: “Those that experience surveillance in a school are semi-captive, and the fact that the same individuals inhabit the same space on a daily basis means that surveillance forms part of their lived environment, as commonplace and mundane as the blackboard at the front of the classroom.”
Others wary of using biometrics in schools point to the challenges around security. “The risks include the data being leaked, hacked or misused by the school,” says Pam Cowburn, communications director for the Open Rights Group. “Schools need to think about how data is collected, stored and used. Who can access it? What could happen if it were leaked?”
Some companies say encryption helps make these systems safe. With its PalmSecure biometrics system, Japanese company Fujitsu, collects an image of the entire hand, encrypting the data. “Each sensor provides a unique encryption algorithm, so even if you stole the encrypted templates, the information would be useless,” says Kent Schrock, marketing executive at Fujitsu. BioStore, meanwhile, holds student scans in a dedicated, encrypted database, promising to delete it – not just overwrite it – when it is no longer in use.
Such encryption is advised by the Information Commissioner’s Office, but understanding the finer points of information security may be beyond school staff and parents, putting the onus on companies to keep data safe.
Proponents argue that biometric systems can keep school buildings secure, help battle truancy and even encourage healthy eating. However, Taylor says she has seen little evidence of this and is concerned schools will feel under pressure to adopt the technology.
“As some schools introduce tracking devices to supposedly increase efficiencies, safeguard students and respond to issues such as truancy and obesity, other schools quickly follow suit through fear of otherwise being regarded as negligent of their responsibilities,” says Taylor. “The only beneficiaries are the companies selling the equipment. Once these systems are viewed as necessary, then any cost, whether financial or social, becomes worth the trade. It is an ingenious strategy to turn limited public funds into private profits.”