The issue - Biometric identification

13th August 2010 at 01:00
Does fingerprint technology aid the day-to-day running of a school, or is it unacceptably invasive, leaving children feeling criminalised?

First introduced a decade ago, fingerprint-recognition technology is now estimated to be used by one in five schools. But it is still controversial, as shown recently when Capital City Academy in Brent, London, was criticised for taking pupils' fingerprints without informing parents.

Fingertip-recognition systems can be used for registration, or as an alternative to library cards, but they are most commonly found in the school canteen, where a cashless system can help reduce bullying and theft. And while biometric technology costs around 25 per cent more than a swipe-card system, it does away with the hassle - and expense - of pupils losing or forgetting their cards.

"It's just simpler for everyone involved," says Brian Rossiter, head of Valley School in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. "Money can be added to accounts over the internet and we're able to credit free school meals automatically. Once a fingertip image has been taken in Year 7, it can be used throughout a pupil's time at the school."

Legally, schools do not have to get parental consent before taking pupils' fingerprints: the Data Protection Act only requires the child to understand what they are doing. However, as the furore at Capital City Academy shows, parents feel they have a right to be informed. At Valley School, Mr Rossiter does not send out consent forms, but is careful to explain to parents how biometric systems work. "Once they fully understand, they're almost always supportive," he says.

When an image of a child's fingertip is taken, most of the data is discarded, but certain points of the image are remembered and converted into an algorithm - a series of letters and numbers. This is the data that is stored and matched against children's fingertips on a daily basis. "It would be extremely hard to reverse the process and turn the numbers back into an image," says Mr Rossiter. "All you would have is a series of random points."

But not everyone thinks the technology is harmless. Dr Emmeline Taylor, a criminologist, believes fingerprinting makes children feel criminalised and that calling those prints "fingertip images" - as most schools do - does little to remove the stigma.

She also questions manufacturers' claims about security, citing a lack of independent testing. "I've been researching biometrics in schools for eight years and I'm yet to be convinced by the arguments," she says.

In the course of her research, Dr Taylor has found two schools that are trialling face-recognition technology, another that implemented a pound;60,000 iris-recognition system, only to abandon it when it proved inefficient, and even one that tried sewing microchips into pupils' blazers. "It's invasive and insidious," she says. "The danger is that young people will become desensitised to this level of surveillance."

But despite ethical concerns about biometric-recognition, increasing numbers of headteachers seem swayed by the practical benefits. "In the majority of cases, schools installing a new system will go for the biometric option," says Simon Nakra of DRS, a company that specialises in electronic-registration systems. "Any problems that arise are usually down to schools not communicating properly with parents - the technology itself has long since proved its worth."

WHAT TO DO

- Consider all the arguments before choosing biometric technology. Be sure to question manufacturers' claims.

- If you do choose biometric, shop around. The quality of systems varies greatly.

- Inform parents before taking fingertip scans. It is not a legal requirement, but it is good practice.

- Always destroy data once a pupil leaves the school.

- The guidance of the Information Commissioner's Office can be found at http:tinyurl.com3529e5.

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