Digital digits

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Once the preserve of sci-fi films, fingerprint recognition technology has not only arrived, it has been adopted for some educational ICT, as George Cole discovers

Passwords - don't you hate them? Like the proverbial coat hanger, they seem to multiply by themselves. If I want to access my email, I need to enter two different passwords before I can see what's in my inbox. If I want to shop on the net, I have a different password for each retailer. If I want information from some websites, I need even more passwords. Goodness knows what life would be like if I also used an online bank.

But if passwords are bad for individuals, spare a thought for the school network administrator, who may have to distribute hundreds, even thousands of them. Passwords can consume a lot of technician time. People lose them, forget them, share them when they shouldn't and have them stolen. It can take ages to remove old passwords from the network system and add new ones.

So wouldn't it be great if we could replace passwords with an identification system that was fast, easy and (almost) foolproof? That is why there is a lot of interest in biometrics technology, which uses unique physical characteristics to identify individuals. All kinds of weird and wonderful biometrics systems have been developed using iris, facial, hand and even smell-recognition technology. But the leading biometrics system uses fingerprint technology.

When Michael Wills was education minister, he expressed interest in fingerprint technology, but the reaction from many people was to choke on their breakfasts. Fingerprint technology was flaky, expensive and it infringed civil liberties, said the critics.

Well, it looks as if Mr Wills'vision could be coming into fruition since a number of educational ICT products now include fingerprint recognition technology. Centerprise markets Toshiba T10 and P10 series laptops that include a finger recognition system, as does RM's Tablet PC for teachers.

And Informer Systems (ISL) markets a system for school networks called SentriNET. The system uses a finger scanner that analyses 25 to 50 points on a finger and uses the data to create a digital image or template expressed as a string of numbers.

But why should schools be interested in fingerprint recognition technology? Derek McDermott, ISL's managing director, says: "In the past, these systems have been proprietary - you've needed special workstations, servers and network systems to run them - and that makes the whole process very expensive. Our system is designed to be integrated into a school's Microsoft or Novell network.

"It's possible to install the system yourself," he adds, "or an ISL engineer can visit the school and do the job. It normally takes about a day."

So how does fingerprint technology work? Camden City Learning Centre (CCLC) has put its money where its fingers are and invested in ISL's system. Based at Camden Community School, London, CCLC has enrolled its 1,000 pupils (aged 11-18) on to CCLC's network using fingerprint recognition technology.

Each student scans his or her finger (they are encouraged to scan three or four in case they break one), a process which takes seconds. Once registered, the students can log on to the network and get instant access to their work files. The system is installed on 100 workstations around CCLC.

One of the biggest issues surrounding fingerprint recognition technology is the "Big Brother" element - is it a breach of civil liberties? In the case of ISL's system, the answer is "no" because it doesn't store an actual fingerprint but a code number.

"We informed parents that you can't create a fingerprint out of the code, so the police couldn't come round and ask for any prints," says Anne Casey, CCLC's manager. "There has been no objection from parents and the children love using the system."

Colin Small, CCLC's technical manager, reports few problems with the system: "ISL took about half a day to install it. The biggest problem we had was that some of the younger children had fingers that were too small for the scanner to extract enough data from, so we got modified scanners."

However, Small acknowledges cost is an issue. ISL says it costs around pound;15-35 per user for the software, with a scanner costing pound;60-80. "A keyboard with a built-in scanner is around pound;100, compared with less than pound;10 for an ordinary keyboard, so there is a big gap," says Small. "But it all comes down to how much you value your technician's time."

CCLC plans to extend the fingerprint system to thousands of members of the local community, who will be able to use the ICT resources once scanned. It may also be used in a new cashless dining-room system and for sending (anonymous) data back to the LEA for statistical purposes.

But others are less enthusiastic. David Leach, head of RM's emerging technologies team, says his company is not rushing lots of products with fingerprint recognition technology to market. "It's the best-developed biometrics system, but there are issues such as how you use it and how you integrate it," he says. McDermott has no such doubts: "Over the next decade, nobody will be using passwords on the network," he concludes.

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