Biometrics in Schools

1 September 2017

Biometrics are increasing in popularity. More and more schools are incorporating them into their security systems. This has created conflict amongst parents regarding the ethical implications of allowing their children’s fingerprints and biometric data to be stored. It also raises doubts as to the necessity of biometric security in school environments. To effectively utilise biometrics in schools, there must be open communication between the school, parents and students regarding biometrics technology, the storing of data and its uses.

The Benefits

Biometric Security in Schools

The most obvious reason for incorporating biometric technology into school security systems is, of course, to increase security. A student cannot lose their fingerprint in the same way they could (and often do) lose their keycard. Biometric security thus makes it incredibly difficult for an unauthorised person to enter school grounds, which means that the students are safer and better protected. Furthermore, the lack of keycards means that parents – and schools – will not have to pay to replace lost or stolen keycards. Money and resources are saved as convenience increases.

Meal Time Management

The majority of schools which employ biometrics use this technology to streamline the school meal process and protect the privacy of students receiving free school meals.  The Independent makes reference to a specific case in which the implementation of a biometric system, ‘meant pupils entitled to free school meals no longer had to present a card which could identify them to other pupils’. This employment of biometrics could help reduce embarrassment and bullying amongst students. Furthermore, incorporating such technology into meal management helps ensure that the students eat their own lunches, thereby assisting the ongoing battle against childhood obesity.

Biometrics and Student Attendance

The Guardian notes that some schools use biometrics for attendance amongst other daily tasks.

‘In these hi-tech schools, biometrics – in particular fingerprints but also palm prints – can be used for entering and exiting the main school building as well as classrooms and buses, taking attendance, and accessing lockers, computers, library books and printers’. 

Some argue that this increased application of biometrics is excessive and normalises surveillance. Nonetheless, it cannot be argued that biometrics could have a positive impact on attendance amongst students, reducing truancy as they cannot circumvent school registration practices.

Biometric Concerns: Normalisation of Surveillance

To expand on the concern regarding normalisation of surveillance, we ought to consider this statement from Emmeline Taylor, author of Surveillance Schools, as noted by The Guardian:

“Those that experience surveillance in a school are semi-captive, and the fact that the same individuals inhabit the same space on a daily basis means that surveillance forms part of their lived environment, as commonplace and mundane as the blackboard at the front of the classroom.”

Certainly, normalisation of surveillance is a worrying concern of biometric security and should not be dismissed, but avoided at all costs. Instead of unnecessary enforcement of biometrics, which would encourage students to adapt to constant surveillance, biometrics should be implemented with the primary purpose of ensuring the safety and security of students rather than monitoring of the daily intricacies of their lives.

Communication is Critical

Providing both parents and students with information regarding the implementation of biometric systems will protect the interest of both parents and schools; open communication and heightened knowledge will reduce the fear of the normalisation of surveillance, thereby reducing the hostility invoked in parents and students, which in turn will ensure that schools only obtain informed consent. Thus, to effectively use biometrics without alienating parents or students, it is critical that schools educate both the parents and students.

Point 32 of the EU General Data Protection Regulations, which applies to schools, states that:

‘Consent should be given by a clear affirmative act establishing a freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous indication of the data subject's agreement to the processing of personal data relating to him or her, such as by a written statement, including by electronic means, or an oral statement.’

Schools must gain consent from parents who are well-informed. They must ensure clear and open communication with the parent, so that they do not feel pressured into giving their consent. Schools must also offer an alternative as stipulated in The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, Chapter 2, Section 27

‘The relevant authority must ensure that reasonable alternative means are available by which the child may do, or be subject to, anything which the child would have been able to do, or be subject to, had the child’s biometric information been processed.’

In her Biometrics in Schools blog, Pippa King highlights misconduct commonly carried out by schools when requesting parental consent that allows them to record their children’s biometric data:

‘Schools do not always make it clear when asking for consent that an alternative to the biometric system is available and that non-consent ultimately lies with the student.’

Many schools do not inform parents of an available alternative in order to pressure parents into giving their consent. Therefore, they do not gain ‘informed’ or ‘unambiguous’ consent as stated by the EU General Data Protection Regulations.

Biometrics hold so much potential to ensure the safety of our youngest and brightest. But, it is the responsibility of the school to incorporate such technology in a fair and nonintrusive manner. They must clearly communicate with parents, perhaps holding a grand meeting in which they can clearly present parents with the facts. In addition, schools should consider adding a consent form to the pack given to parents who wish to enrol their children. This way, parents are informed from the outset and have more options to consider.

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