The Use of Biometric Technology in K-12 Schools
Ellen Mizio, NCSTL Fellow
Biometrics is defined as "the practice of digitally scanning the physiological or behavioural characteristics of individuals as a means of identification."1 Facial images, fingerprints, handprints and hand geometry, eye structure, retina scans, iris identification, and vascular (blood vessel) patterns are all types of biological characteristics that can be used in biometric applications. These applications can be used to distinguish between different individuals for various purposes and are generally considered to be more reliable than identification numbers or passwords, since biological characteristics are unique to an individual and almost impossible to change.2
How Biometrics Works
Biometrics applications typically use a scanner or reader to record the individual's unique characteristic. The scanned information is converted to a digital format, and specific points of data are identified as match points. The match points are converted to a numeric format, and stored for later use. The individual uses the scanner or reader whenever they need to be verified for the service they are trying to access. The database software then compares the scan to the stored data, identifies whether the points match or not, and grants or denies access to the desired service.3
Who Uses Biometrics
Biometrics is used in law enforcement, healthcare, and many other industries. This article focuses on the use of biometrics in K-12 school systems, where systems have been used for controlling access to the facility, taking attendance, tracking time and attendance of employees, checking out library books, and ensuring that the right student gets on the right school bus.
Biometrics in Schools
Biometrics has been used in K-12 school systems for several years. Alistair Barroch, director of Biostore (http://www.biostore.co.uk/), a UK company that provides biometric solutions for the education market, estimates that 10% of schools in the UK are using biometrics.4 In 2003, Food Service Solutions, a vendor that sells finger-scanning systems to school districts for use in regulating access to school lunches, reported that their systems were used in 45 school districts in the US, scanning around 250,000 students daily.5 In November 2010, MealsPlus, another vendor providing biometric scanning solutions to schools for school lunches, reported that their systems were "in use in 2,758 cafeterias in 27 states and 112 North Carolina school systems".6
One of the most common uses of biometrics in schools is to regulate access to school lunches and other meals. The Akron (OH) School District is using a system they call iMeal in 18 of their middle schools. Students scan their fingerprint or use a PIN when they get to the cashier. The cashier enters the items the student has selected, and is alerted if the student has chosen a food item to which they are allergic. The amount owed can be paid at the register or deducted from their account. School officials are happy with the system, saying that it has sped up lunch lines and has removed the stigma of receiving a free or reduced price lunch, since no one can tell which children are using this option. Participation in the free and reduced price lunch program increased after iMeal was implemented.7
Other schools using the technology for school lunches include Don Estridge Middle School in Boca Raton, FL8; Circleville (OH) City School District9; Clovis (NM) Schools 10, and Seminole County (Florida) Public Schools.11
Access to Facilities
Some schools are using biometric technology to control access to facilities or materials. The Academy of Appleton, WI uses HandKey, a hand scanner that controls access to the room where tests are stored. They also use the technology to control access to the school; parents and teachers need a PIN to open the outer door of the school, then must put their hand on a scanner to open the inner door of the school.12 In 2002-03, some New Jersey schools tested the use of iris recognition systems to control access to the school for parents, teachers, and staff members. This project was funded through a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) grant, and the conclusion was that on the whole iris recognition was successful in these schools, in that there were few false positives, and the technology worked correctly. However, this system only serves to keep outsiders away from the school and does not prevent crimes being committed by those who have access rights, so it may not be the most effective security tool for schools.13
Another application of biometrics technology in schools is to manage access to school buses. Schools often have problems with making sure students take the correct bus, and there can be serious issues if students are on the wrong bus or get dropped off at the wrong location. In 2004 the Ontario-Montclair school district (CA) implemented a system called sweetFINGER to manage school bus riders. Each bus is equipped with a mobile device which captures fingerprints and then displays the identity of each child when boarding or disembarking from the bus. The system can also provide information about arrival times of buses and information about alternate routes in case of traffic congestion.14 The Desert Sands school District in California recently voted to test the BOSS (Biometric Observation Security System), which uses fingerprint scanners to identify children as they get on and off buses.15
While many people may see biometrics as an effective way to manage situations like access to schools, management of school lunches, buses, and libraries, others see these systems as a threat to privacy, and critics have concerns about potential misuse of biometric information.
In 2007 parents organized in Taunton, Massachusetts to protest the schools' plan to use fingerprint scanning for lunches. The "Ban the Scan" campaign was successful in persuading the Taunton schools to abandon their "Lunch Bytes" scanning program. Parents were concerned about privacy and the potential for identity theft and did not believe that the school system could safeguard their children's information. Critics pointed out that identification numbers can be changed after identity theft, but fingerprints can never be changed.16
St. Neots Community College in Cambridgeshire, England in 2009 began a pilot program to test using facial recognition technology to take attendance. The school saw this as a way to ensure the collection of accurate data about attendance, which would then help students claim the Educational Maintenance Allowance grant for disadvantaged students. Parent activist David Clouter of the group Leave Them Kids Alone (http://www.leavethemkidsalone.com/) argues that schools hold a large amount of personal data for students, and gathering biometric data could provide a single entry point to eventually access personal data on other systems. The company providing the technology for St. Neots argues that the technology is proprietary and even if the encryption on their system was broken, the data could not be used in other systems.17
Proponents of biometric technologies respond to criticism about retaining fingerprints by saying that the systems use finger imaging, not fingerprinting. The system creates a template of numbers that correspond to the unique swirls and arches of each print. The image is discarded and only the number is retained. However, critics such as Kim Cameron, chief architect of identity and access in Microsoft's Connected Systems Division, counter this claim by saying that you can still generate a face or fingerprint from a template, according to research done in Canada and Australia.18
Several states have enacted legislation regulating the use of biometrics in schools, and Iowa and Michigan have passed laws that severely restrict schools from scanning students for biometric characteristics.19 Illinois SB1702 requires school districts to have a policy before collecting any biometric information from students, prohibits the sale or disclosure of biometric information, and requires parental consent before any children are scanned.20 Arizona and Louisiana also have statutes regarding collection of biometric information by schools.
This issue will continue to be debated, as schools attempt to implement the technology in order to improve their processes and become more efficient, and parents and activists raise concerns about privacy and potential misuse of this information.
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11 Waters, J. K. (2009, October). "Reading between the lines: biometric tools draw information from a person's identifying physical components, providing a virtually fail-safe level of protection for K-12 schools". T H E Journal. 23-26.
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20 2007, August 01). Full text of SB1702. Illinois General Assembly. (Last accessed on January 15, 2011: Retrieved January 06, 2011, from http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/fulltext.asp?DocName=&SessionId=51&GA=95&DocTypeId=SB&DocNum=1702&GAID=9&LegID=29842&SpecSess=&Session=).