On Biometrics in Schools

This all starts with a seemingly innocuous letter, with the title “Cashless Catering System”, sent to the parents and carers of students from The Crown Woods School in South East London. The first sentence states:

The school is introducing a bio-metric system for pupil identification in the new College. The new system will  be used to register pupils, for use of the library and for catering use.

Biometrics in schools? When did this happen?

My initial impression is that the letter (copied at the end of this post) presents a one-sided argument of the use of such a system, focusing on the benefits. This includes selective quotes from the Data Protection Commissioner’s Office and reassurances that the “thumbprint is NOT stored”. Attached to the letter is a 2006 statement from Mark McMorran MD of Cyclone Industries, the company providing the system, stating “This is not fingerprinting of the type associated with the police”. That’s great Mark, but none of this helps to allay my fundamental uneasiness about the collection and use of such data.

Adding to these fears, the letter provides no information about any alternative should the parent decide not to give permission. They are simply asked to sign “an authorisation slip which should be returned to the school as soon as possible”.


What follows is a collection of my thoughts and collaborative research on this topic since mid last week.

This is happening across the country seemingly without much scrutiny. Search for “thumbprint school” and you come up with a wealth of information on the topic, most of which seems to come from bewildered parents with questions and concerns. In March of 2010 Dr Emmeline Taylor, who conducted a study on surveillance of pupils funded by Salford University, was quoted saying “3,500 schools in the UK – one in seven [~14%] – are estimated to be using fingerprint technology”. In July of the same year a Guardian report claimed “Some estimates suggest that as many as 30% of all schools in the UK have fingerprinting technology”.

Parental consent is still a grey area since there exists no law, only advice, stopping schools taking fingerprints without permission. In fact, laws covering this are only just making their way through Parliament as part of the Protection of Freedoms Bill.

As long ago as 2002 Privacy International condemned mass fingerprinting of UK school children:

Privacy International says the practice “de-humanises our children and degrades their human rights”, and has called for the unconditional withdrawal of the technology from schools. PI’s director, Simon Davies, said “the use of such systems will have the effect of de-sensitising people to more comprehensive privacy invasion later in life”.

And on that last point I completely agree. In fact, please read that article, in it Privacy International strongly criticise the biased involvement of the Office of the Information Commissioner and the then Department for Education and Skills who they claimed were “equally culpable”.

Going further:

Privacy International warned that the practice of finger printing for the purpose of library cards was in clear violation of the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act. “The law states that privacy invasion must be proportionate to the threat. A few lost library cards do not warrant mass finger printing” said Mr Davies.

My thanks to Rachel Mawhood and Jim Killock in pointing me to much of this information. I wanted to use this post to spark debate, so please leave a note in the comments if you have anything to add. Thanks.

UPDATE 2011-02-23: Pippa King has been in touch and introduced me to her site, http://www.pippaking.blogspot.com/

It looks like a good resource for concerned parents, including information about reconstructing fingerprints from templates, a feat that is supposedly impossible to do according to the following information.

UPDATE 2011-02-25: It seems I’m just confusing people with the title “RE: Cashless Catering System” (probably trying to be too clever), so I’ve changed it in favour of a new one. Sorry about that.

Letter from Crown Woods School, dated 11 February 2011.

Dear Parent/Carer

Cashless Catering System

The school is introducing a bio-metric system for pupil identification in the new College. The new system will be used to register pupils, for use of the library and for catering use.

The lunch system will mean that pupils will no longer have to bring money on a daily basis to pay for their lunch. They will be able to pay in advance for their meals by means of crediting their account on machines situated in the dining area.

The system uses the thumb print of the pupil and the software calculates a huge digital number from the image, and it is this number itself which is stored as a personal identification number. The actual thumb print image is NOT stored. When a student enters the school and uses the fingerprint scanner, the scanner recalculates the number and recognises the student. Such software is now being used to allow laptop users to secure their laptops – you will have seen this advertised on TV.

Students and parents can be reassured that this system has a very high level of security and that it is not possible to use the students PIN to reconstruct the original thumb print. The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has scrutinised the technology and has stated “I would encourage you to employ the system using finger print images. It seems to me that the use of bio-metric identifiers allows users to verify their identity without the risk of intrusions into privacy …. I would certainly like to be able to point to it as an example of good practice”.

I hope that all students and parents will feel comfortable in helping us with the implementation. The software has been installed and we would hope to start the process of taking pupils’ thumb prints during the second half of this term ahead of our move into the new College. There are now an increasing number of schools using systems like this. I have attached a press release from the company together with an authorisation slip which should be returned to the school as soon as possible.

If you should have any queries please contact the School Office. Further information will be sent with details of how to use the catering system in the near future. Thank you for your help in this matter.

Yours sincerely

And from Cyclone Industries:



September 2006

The technology does not store actual images of finger or thumb prints but instead converts them into a 400 digit coded number. Mark McMorran, MD of Cyclone Industries the developer of Live Register, states: “This is not fingerprinting of the type associated with the police. The ability to record student attendance enhances the school’s efforts to ensure a safe and secure environment for all students and staff as well as providing extra flexibility in managing school timetables and freeing up more time for teaching. The storing of biometric information in the form of student photographs has long since been a practice by the majority of schools in the UK.”

See www.liveregister.co.uk

Posted on Tuesday 22 February 2011.

Posted in education, privacy | 2 comments »