Fingerprinting School Children

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Fingerprinting School Children

Letter from the Information Commissioner from 2001, stating that he doesn't see any data protection issues with the use of fingerprinting in school libraries.

Until recently, when a relative's son began attending high school, I had no idea that some schools were routinely fingerprinting children. However, since at least 2006, it has been commonplace for schools to take biometric data from children. As with its near neighbour bin tracking, the motives are ostensibly sensible: parents can deposit money into a child's account. The child is then able to use that money in a cashless system to purchase food or other supplies in school - identified by finger print reading technology (or, in some cases, iris recognition).

There are practical arguments in favour of such a system. Primarily, perhaps, it can be argued that children who don't carry any form of cash can't be stolen from or bullied for the same. Also, the money given by parents can only be spent within school through the cashless system, rather than on surreptitious break time visits to the off license. In view of the current mania for "healthy eating" it is easy to see the appeal to those who wish to ban children from accessing so-called junk foods.

Against that must be weighed the fact that biometrics are a highly sensitive issue. The use of fingerprinting has its roots in criminal detection and is thus encumbered by any number of legal safeguards to ensure that it is not misused by official agencies. The opportunities for misuse are obvious and manifold - especially when the data is in digital format only. Unlike legally monitored and accountable bodies like the police, schools come under little formal scrutiny regarding their acquisition, use and retention of such data - much less the security measures used to ensure that sensitive information is kept secure.

As with other instances of mass surveillance, there is also the issue of a 'normalisation' of data collection and retention that flies in the face of long held cultural norms. Already, huge amounts of personal information is held about us by public and private bodies under varying levels of scrutiny and control, and it is debatable whether normalising more extreme levels of data collection  (i.e., biometrics) in young children who legally can't consent is a wise step.

The current coalition government have announced that parental consent will be required in future for any school wishing to collect pupil biometrics, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the culture and technology has already become so prevalent as to make its extension inevitable. 

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 19th September 2013 | © Weird Island 2010-2019
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