Biometrics in schools: big win or big brother?

“If you don’t know the password you can’t come in.”

It’s a phrase often heard in school playgrounds up and down the country, as children play games with their friends.

But frankly, passwords could soon be irrelevant if biometrics continue to take off in the way that they have.

A piece of research carried out by Big Brother Watch based on data from the 2012-13 academic year, and published earlier this year, revealed that an estimated 40% of schools in England are using biometric systems. It therefore surmised that fingerprints have already been taken from more than one million school pupils; many without their parents consent.

These fingerprints are the necessary ‘password’ to access many of the school’s services, from paying for their lunch to checking out a library book.

The argument ‘for’

biometrics in schools
One upside can be the increase in library books being checked out

Supporters of using biometrics in schools are quick to point out a number of benefits. The most obvious one being security – a fingerprint can’t be copied or lost in the way that an ID card can. Then there’s the speed and convenience: no more queues at a card scanner when arriving at school or rummaging around for coins, holding everyone up, at lunchtime.

Let’s not forget the ‘cool’ factor in all of this as well. Opponents to fingerprinting in schools tend to be the parents, not the kids themselves, who generally welcome the idea, and look forward to the whole ‘sci-fi’ deal that goes with it.

One of the unexpected benefits was found in the library. Some schools reported a big jump in books being borrowed – the kids liked using the fingerprint scanner so they took out more books. Always having the means to check out a book ‘on them’ meant they were more likely to do so.

The solution also helps to ensure equality at meal times. With everyone using their fingerprint to ‘buy’ their lunch, it’s impossible to tell who qualifies for free school meals, which means no-one is singled out.

The argument against

For all its supporters, there are certainly those who are passionately against the use of biometrics. The concerns range from worries over privacy and the ability to ‘steal’ and misappropriate personal data, to the fact that these systems normalise the act of tracking and monitoring pupil’s behaviour.

Some of those responding to the report released by Big Brother Watch talk about the danger of biometric information lying on a database somewhere, at the mercy of hackers or lost by those clumsy enough to leave a laptop on a train. Biometrics providers are quick to point out that records of the actual fingerprint aren’t stored; rather it is encrypted into a series of digits. This is what’s used to confirm ID against the fingerprint presented.

One comment, left by Anonymous, sums up the concerns around privacy in the future:

Future generations will not have any privacy or know what it is like to have privacy if we do not stop the erosion of privacy now… Yes it might be easier for kids to provide a fingerprint to get a library book out now but can they really be sure that it won’t come back to bite them in the future removing any possibilities of choice and privacy that they might want?”

The Freedom of Information Act

One of Big Brother Watch’s major issues is the fact that as many as 31% of the fingerprints were taken without gaining consent from the parents. With the introduction of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which was passed in 2013, this should be a thing of the past.

The legal framework states that colleges and schools must follow these rules for biometric recognition systems:

– For all pupils in schools and colleges under 18, they must obtain the written consent of a parent before they take and process their child’s biometric data.

– They must treat the data with appropriate care and must comply with data protection principles as set out in the Data Protection Act 1998.

– They must provide alternative means for accessing services where a parent or pupil has refused consent.

A moot point for many schools

Let’s not forget that installing a biometric system doesn’t come cheap, so it simply won’t be realistic within some school’s budgets. But for those who can afford it, what will be the real price?

You can read the full Big Brother Watch report here

Does your school use a biometric solution? What kind of feedback have you had from parents and the children themselves? We’d love to know what you think.