Ban the scan? Biometrics come under fire

Published in FSD Update

Some school districts think biometrics are a key to faster lunch service. But not everyone believes the technology is worth the risks.

By 
Paul King, Editor

For the past four years, the foodservice department at Pinellas County Schools, in Florida, has used palm scanners in its 83 schools. According to Foodservice Director Art Dunham, the technology has helped speed students through the lunch lines, giving them more time to eat. It also has allowed the department to more accurately track free- and reduced-price meal participation and ensure that students’ online meal accounts are being accessed properly.

Unfortunately, palm scanners are on the way out in Pinellas. The technology has been deemed too intrusive by the Florida legislature, which in April passed legislation that makes it illegal for school districts to “collect, obtain or retain ... biometric information of a student or a parent or sibling of a student ... Examples of biometric information include, but are not limited to, a fingerprint or hand scan, a retina or iris scan, a voice print or a facial geometry scan.” The new law gives Pinellas County until the end of the 2014-15 school year to scrap the scanners.

With the bill’s passage, Florida becomes the first state to ban the use of biometrics. A similar bill in New Hampshire was defeated in 2010, and a measure proposed in Maryland in 2012 died in committee. Several states, such as Illinois and West Virginia, have set restrictions on the use of biometrics in schools, such as mandating parental consent before such technology is used.

The Florida law is the most damaging salvo yet fired in the war against biometrics, and it comes at a time when its use by school foodservice departments is beginning to gain momentum. In 2011, 5% of school districts responding to the School Nutrition Association’s biannual Operations Report used biometrics in their foodservice operations. That’s nearly five times the number of districts that were using the technology in 2005.

But as usage grows, so too do concerns from parents and civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Their fears are driven in large measure by the major data breaches that have occurred in the last couple of years. That’s one of the reasons Florida state Sen. Dorothy Hukill drafted the legislation that was passed in her state. Hukill says that privacy concerns and the rights of children outweigh any benefits school districts might realize from biometrics.

“We have been moving kids through lunch lines for decades without this technology,” says Hukill, who once was a schoolteacher in New York City. “When you’re talking about minor children, I think it’s absolutely inappropriate for the government to be collecting this information. Ease of use is not the criterion we should be using. We need to use the least intrusive method possible.”

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