December 5 2012

Coming to a School Cafeteria Near You: Scanners

Vicki E. Alger

Controversy erupted over a San Antonio school district’s use of tracking devices embedded in students’ school ID cards. Now it appears hand scanners have arrived at Florida school cafeterias. As the Daily Caller reports:

The Tampa Bay area school district switched from lunch money to palm scanning roughly 18 months ago. Some 50,000 students across nearly 40 high schools and middle schools are currently eligible. That number will more than double soon, when the program expands to 80 elementary schools.

Students can opt out of palm scanning but only about 2 percent still use cash. …

Biometric tracking systems that recognize people by their physical features are turning up all over the place. Hospitals are also using the technology. All told, more than 50 school systems and 160 hospital systems in 15 states and the District of Columbia currently use palm scanners.

The National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology, and the Law (NCSTL) notes that school officials report that hand scanner speed up the lunch lines. They also helped increase free- and reduced-price lunch participation among students by removing any stigma. But biometrics isn’t limited to lunch lines. NCSTL also reports:

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. …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.

Another application of biometrics technology in schools is to manage access to school buses. … 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 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.

Is this good school management or a privacy violation? In 2007 Taunton, Massachusetts, parents organized a "Ban the Scan" campaign, which stopped implementation of the local district’s "Lunch Bytes" scanning program. Parents were not convinced that their children’s privacy would be adequately protected.

Other states have banned biometrics outright or limited its use in schools, including Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, Arizona, and Louisiana. Elsewhere parents are opting out, as the Daily Caller explains:

Michael Webb, whose son Ian is a second grader in Carroll County, Md., has chosen not to participate in a similar program at Piney Ridge Elementary School. “My son is not using the technology,” Webb said. “I’ll be honest, I think it’s horrible. It’s an intrusion into our children’s rights.”

Webb worries that the use of such identification technology could prevent young children from recognizing privacy violations when they grow older.

“I understand taking an iris scan of a pilot at an airport, so you know it’s the right pilot flying the plane,” Webb explained. “This is that level of equipment they’re installing in a line that serves steamed corn. I don’t think it rises to the level of steamed corn.”

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