Should we care if over a million schoolkids have been fingerprinted?

Filed Under: Featured, Privacy

Fingerprints. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.A study released last week by privacy campaigners Big Brother Watch (BBW) claims that as many as 1.28 million schoolchildren in the UK may have had their fingerprints taken by their school authorities last year.

It also estimates that over 30% of schools didn't get permission for taking fingerprints, before new regulations came into force in late 2013 which meant parental consent had to be gained.

The report's findings have been picked up by national media and seem to be having the desired effect of drawing attention to the use of biometrics in UK schools, with the expected hand-wringing about the gradual erosion of privacy.

The use of biometrics in schools is not a new thing. Mainly relying on fingerprint reading, biometric systems have been used to record attendance, charge for catering and manage library use since at least 2001 in the UK, with early instances recorded in the late nineties in the US.

There were similar stories back then too, with civil rights campaigners highlighting the numbers being fingerprinted and the lack of proper consent.

The issue has popped up repeatedly since, with another pressure group, the now-defunct LeaveThemKidsAlone, claiming a figure of 2 million fingerprinted children in 2009.

The BBW study seems to have a rather more credible scientific basis, but still relies on a fair amount of extrapolation to reach the 1.28 million figure. Using Freedom of Information requests, they surveyed over 2,500 schools, but received responses from only 1,255. Of these, 499 admitted to using biometrics, affecting over 500,000 pupils.

These figures were then extended to cover all UK schools assuming the same ratios, to give a potential figure of 866,000 affected children for the 2012-2013 school year.

As the report was released a third of the way through the following school year, the report's authors assume an increase in biometric use from 25% to 30% of schools, and this combined with annual overall growth figures for schools produces the 1.28 million estimate.

While many of these assumptions and extrapolations seem reasonable, they do leave the report open to accusations of hype.

The numbers themselves and even their accuracy are perhaps not so important though. Even the most pedantic of quibblers would find it difficult to deny that biometric use in schools has been growing steadily over the last decade or so, and looks likely to become the norm within the next few years.

But just because it is becoming more popular, does it mean it's a good thing?

For the schools it certainly seems to have benefits. Everyone needs to cut costs these days, and biometric systems are apparently more efficient and cheaper to operate than old-fashioned methods based on cash, ID cards or pen-and-paper records.

But under new consent rules which came into force in September 2013, schools will have to give pupils the option to refuse to take part in biometric schemes, and even if they are up for it, written parental consent will be required for all under-18s.

According to the BBW figures measured prior to the introduction of the new rules, 31% of schools were not obtaining any kind of consent before enrolling pupils in their biometric systems.

So less high-tech techniques will have to remain available to cater to the refuseniks, which will doubtless take a chunk out of those savings.

Alongside the cost issue, some schools have pointed out the social value of the schemes, as they mean children receiving state support for meals etc. are not explicitly marked out from their peers, although it seems likely there would be other ways of achieving this.

The other side of the argument is dominated by the privacy and civil liberties angle. BBW argues that if we start indoctrinating our kids to the idea that their identity should be open to tracking and monitoring at all times, we risk reducing our society to an Orwellian nightmare of supervision and control.

Going to school should not mean kids are taught they have no privacy, especially at a time when we are sharing more data about ourselves than ever before. Fingerprinting them and tracking what they do might save some admin work but the risk is pupils think it is normal to be tracked like this all the time. Schools need to be transparent about what data is being collected and how it is used.

It won't be long, it seems, before we're all being identified by the barcodes tattooed on our foreheads at birth.

The use of automated systems to identify people doing different things also opens up opportunities to cross-match that data to provide deep tracking of our activities and behaviours, the sort of stuff that both advertisers and government snoops adore.

At the moment all data held by schools should be kept strictly private and destroyed when pupils leave, but given the history of schools getting into bed with fast food chains and controversial religions, many fear that selling on data to the Facebooks and Googles of the future may only be a few more credit crunches away.

The other potential issue is the security of data, which is pretty likely to be at risk from time to time, given the record of educational establishments when it comes to keeping data private and reliable.

 Hand. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.In some cases it's even the kids themselves who bypass security.

Biometrics remains a fairly new field, with the process of defining standard techniques still under way and even expensive implementations of fingerprinting fairly easily subverted. So even if these methods should be used, there are questions over whether they can be used accurately and reliably, yet.

Given all these concerns, it seems there are some strong reasons to worry about the trend of schools adopting biometrics, above and beyond the instinctive antipathy many of us have for identity tracking.

Despite this gut reaction, I can see value in simplifying authentication in schools, as in all settings. But it's something that needs to be done with care, precision and, above all, openness. We need to know exactly what's being tracked, how and why, what data is stored, who it's shared with and how it's secured, and much more besides.

Any time the way we operate our societies changes significantly, we need to analyse and debate all aspects of the change to ensure we're going the right way. With incremental advancements in technology, there's a danger those changes will happen slowly over time, without us noticing what might be happening.

So it's good to see BBW and their ilk calling us on our possible ignorance to what's been going on around us for the last decade.

Perhaps eventually people will start to take notice, and start really thinking about what privacy risks are worth taking in the name of cut costs and improved efficiency.

Images of fingerprints and hand courtesy of Shutterstock.

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15 Responses to Should we care if over a million schoolkids have been fingerprinted?

  1. Technophile · 636 days ago

    "It won't be long, it seems, before we're all being identified by the barcodes tattooed on our foreheads at birth."

    Don't be silly, the way to go is micro-chipping. We do it for our pets so why not do it for our children. You can probably tune the microchips so that teachers can deliver jolts to specific children in the classroom to keep them awake. You are not allowed nowadays to chastise by physical contact so this sort of technology properly developed (think of the export potential!) could provide a means of maintaining classroom discipline.

    • Get with the times, man. This is soooo 2003...

    • Mick A · 635 days ago

      I heartily agree with any kind of punishment that provides discouragement electrically - and satisfies the rules for not being in physical contact.


  2. I can actually see an up side to this - it would be virtually impossible for anyone to borrow a book from the library in the name of another person who is on the biometric system. I actually got a reminder to return a book I'd never heard of once. However, I would also agree that proper consent has to be sought.

    • I'm guessing you didn't read the article (linked from the article above) which explained how easy it is to 'clone' a fingerprint...

  3. Terry · 636 days ago

    Another good reason why I home shcool

  4. Guest · 636 days ago

    This is one more reason why I'm glad I was young 212 years ago.

  5. Mr Humbug · 636 days ago

    I think there are two things here that are being conflated.

    Firstly there is the use of the fingerprint as an ID. As I understand it (at least at the school m,y daughter attended and my son is still at) this is used in a context where a staff member is supervising the transaction (ringing in the items on a till in the cafeteria or checking the book being borrowed) so the opportunity to use a fake finger to impersonate someone else is quite limited. If not a fingerprint then some other ID will be needed such as a card or a number which brings us to ...

    Secondly there is the data that are collected. If I want to I can ask the school for a printout of everything my child has purchased in the cafeteria. As I understand it this information is not shared outside the school and nor does anybody in the school waste their time looking at it. I suppose there may be some 'targeted marketing' opportunities but given the view that schools and education authorities take about junk food I think the political implications would prevent this. I've no idea how long the data are held for, except that we are assured that they are deleted when the child leaves the school.

    So of these two issues I think the fact that there is a hash of a fingerprint stored in a database is really quite trivial. It saves issuing cards, replacing cards and checking that the card user is also the owner.

    The alternative to an account-based cafeteria system would be tio use cash and accept all the costs of stocking the till with change, counting the money and reconciling the register and securely transporting it to the bank. Not to mention the risks associated with pupils carrying cash, losing it, being bullied, and easily identifying those on free school meals.

    We should answer two questions:

    1) should schools use an account-based system for the cafeteria and the library or not?

    2) what kind of ID should be attached to the account?

    I thought these through six or seven years ago when my oldest chaild started secondary school and decided that on balance the answer to 1 is yes and that in answer to 2 that fingerprints were better than an ID card within the context of the school (small population, limited use).

    • "As I understand it this information is not shared outside the school and nor does anybody in the school waste their time looking at it. I suppose there may be some 'targeted marketing' opportunities but given the view that schools and education authorities take about junk food I think the political implications would prevent this. I've no idea how long the data are held for, except that we are assured that they are deleted when the child leaves the school."

      You can't see the flaw in your argument in the above?

      • Mr Humbug · 635 days ago

        "You can't see the flaw in your argument in the above?"

        That I have to trust the school to do what it says it will do with the data? I already trust it to look after my child's safety and well-being for over six hours each day, which I think is a much bigger step.

  6. Mick A · 635 days ago

    If I was an arch criminal (whatever that is), intent on furthering my nefarious ends - I am fairly sure that I would be a bit more ambitious than to amass fraudulently obtained library books. If I did though, I would ensure my workforce couldn't get one unless I had somehow managed to require a unique key for each transaction only known by myself, to stop my clone army from running off with the ill-gotten gains. That said, a school would only be 'allowed' to have that finger print for the amount of time it was required - and for the purposes it was originally intended. Whilst these are the 'rules', I have absolutely no confidence that these will be strictly followed. I would freak if my kids' were fingerprinted - if they fell into the hands of real criminals it would affect them all their lives. You can't change your fingerprint like a PIN number can you?

  7. MikeP_UK · 635 days ago

    Fact is that it is not legal in the UK to gather this information on minors without the consent of the parents. However it is to be used, that consent must be obtained before taking the biometric data.
    Personally, I don't like the gathering of this data for any purpose and would refuse permission. Nothing wrong with the systems we have used for years called Cash.

  8. Anonymous · 635 days ago

    I was fingerprinted in the USA circa 1992 for my Ident-a-kid ID as well as on a "field trip" to the police station my class took--I wonder if those were ever filed away in a governmental file somewhere?

  9. Andrew · 635 days ago

    yes we should be worried before long governments will be telling us when it is tme for bed

  10. Matt Harwood · 634 days ago

    We are implementing a fingerprint, biometric system for dinners and other payments within the school I manage currently.

    The system works by looking at the fingerprint, taking 4 or 5 random points, and generating a number that represents those points. No image of the fingerprint is ever stored in full, and unless the manufacturer's algorithm was to be compromised, alongside our systems here, no fingerprint could ever be reconstructed.

    Regardless of the relative lack of danger, many parents are not happy to have their child on the system, reasons for which we are trying to ascertain at the moment. My feeling is an instinctive reaction of privacy invasion, something I must admit I felt until looking further in to the technology.

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About the author

John Hawes is Chief of Operations at Virus Bulletin, running independent anti-malware testing there since 2006. With over a decade of experience testing security products, John was elected to the board of directors of the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organisation (AMTSO) in 2011.