The Issue : Biometric technology

22nd April 2011 at 01:00
Electronic scanning of fingers or eyes is a simple registration technique for schools, but new laws could make it complicated

In the canteen at Valley School in Worksop, students pay for lunch by placing the tip of their finger on an electronic scanner. It matches their print against a stored image and debits their account accordingly. No cards, no cash, no queues. "It's a very simple system," says head Brian Rossiter. "None of the hassle of lost or forgotten swipe cards."

But this "simple system" may be about to get more complex. New legislation due later this year will oblige schools to get written permission from parents to take pupils' biometric data. "A bureaucratic nightmare," warns Mr Rossiter. "It's not that parents are likely to refuse permission," he says. "But chasing up permission slips is never easy, and if children aren't in the system they won't be able to use the canteen."

Under current law, there is no need to seek parental consent before taking biometric data, provided a child is old enough to understand what they are doing. Even so, many schools do consult with parents. At Valley School letters are sent home explaining how the fingerprints will be taken and how the images will be used. Parents are free to refuse permission, but very few do.

However, if it becomes compulsory for parents to opt in rather than opt out, take-up could drop. Biometric technology - fingerprint, face or iris recognition - is now used by around one in five UK schools, either as a registration system, or in the library or canteen. It is not cheap, often costing pound;10,000 or more to install, and heads such as Mr Rossiter are concerned that unless almost every parent gives permission, the system becomes unworkable.

However, Daniel Hamilton, of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, says biometric technology has no place in schools. He believes that vital data could be stolen or misused and that young people do not necessarily understand the risks. "I absolutely support the proposed changes to the law," he says. "If I was a parent, I wouldn't allow a school to take my child's fingerprints." And he has little sympathy for heads who complain about the bureaucratic burden: "Just because a law is inconvenient doesn't make it wrong."

Supporters of biometrics insist that concerns over privacy and data security are misplaced. Once a fingertip image has been taken electronically, it is then converted into a meaningless series of letters and numbers and the original image deleted. And while fingerprinting may have criminal associations, there is now a move towards face-recognition systems, which are unthreatening and user-friendly.

"We don't ask parents' permission, because all that's required is a simple photograph," says Kelli Foster, head of sixth-form at Sir Christopher Hatton School in Northamptonshire, where face-recognition technology allows sixth-formers to clock in and out. "But if the law changes, I'm sure our students will persuade their parents to sign up because they like the system. They won't want to lose it."


- Schools will not be allowed to process biometric information without written parental consent unless a student is aged 18 or over.

- Consent will be required from "each parent of the child".

- The child's consent will still be required.

- Alternative systems must be put in place so that, if permission is refused, children are not disadvantaged.

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