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Ban the scan? Biometrics come under fire

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

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.”

Not a new idea

Biometrics certainly is not new, nor is its use by foodservice operators. For example, the foodservice department at the University of Georgia has used palm scanners since 1972 to identify meal plan students when they enter cafeterias. Schools in Wood County, W.Va., have used fingerprint scanners in their cafeterias for more than a decade.

In other settings, daycare centers in several states require parents to provide fingerprint scans so that they can be identified when they come to pick up their children, and an increasing number of medical centers now use some form of biometrics to identify patients.

Pioneers in the use of the technology have encountered little opposition and claim to have had no problems with incorrect usage or security breaches.

“I think it is very beneficial,” says Beverly Blough, foodservice director in Wood County. “It is, in a sense a foolproof ID system. A child never forgets his or her finger, and once they get the hang of it they get through the line very quickly. It is cost-effective and speeds up service. It gives us accurate student identification for federal meal reimbursement.”

Blough admits that there was some trepidation on the part of parents when the technology was introduced.

“We gave parents an opt out and provided them with alternate identification,” she explains. “Since the initial startup we’ve not heard any more complaints.”

The Cabell County School District, in West Virginia, has used fingerprint scanning since 2009 in seven middle and high schools without incident, according to Foodservice Director Rhonda McCoy. As in Wood County, parents who object to the technology can opt out.

“Under our old system, students would lose or forget their ID cards,” McCoy says. “It would slow the line down, and if a school made those students go to the back of the line, some of them might choose not to eat and we would lose that revenue.”

Opposition grows

Those success stories seem to hold little weight these days with people opposed to biometrics. In 2012, for instance, Carroll County Schools, in Maryland, implemented palm scanners in several schools, only to dismantle them a couple of months later in the face of strong objections from parents. Neither foodservice personnel nor district administrators would comment on the reversal, citing the “sensitive nature” of the issue.

Late last year, a similar case occurred in the Puyallup School District, in Washington. In the fall of 2013, Puyallup began testing palm scanners in cafeterias in an elementary school and a middle school. But parents voiced such concern over invasion of privacy and potential data breaches—it didn’t help that the district installed the scanners without first informing parents—that the district scrapped the project.

“In response to concerns expressed by parents in our community, the district suspended the implementation of palm scanners during school lunch and returned all hardware to the company,” says Brian Fox, executive director, communications, information and arts education. “Simply put, our community is not ready for this technology.”

Baylor Johnson, media relations manager for the ACLU of Florida, says his organization opposes biometrics in schools and threw its support behind the Florida measure.

“The stakes are just too high to take this chance for something as simple as buying a school lunch,” Johnson says. “We are seeing in recent months how any computer system can be compromised. Even if [a biometric system] isn’t hacked, it could be compromised by human error, and we should be especially concerned with the biometric info of children.”

Johnson notes that the ACLU is not opposed to all forms of biometrics in all instances, “but any time new technology is introduced you have to weigh the benefits versus the potential dangers. That’s what Florida did here.”

Slim evidence

The irony is that evidence to support the arguments of those opposed to biometrics in school foodservice doesn’t seem to exist. No school district using biometrics has ever reported a breach of its system or any theft of biometric data. Wood County’s Blough points out that her district’s system is so closed that when a student moves from one school to another he or she must be rescanned and the data input into a new computer. But even if her system were not so limited, Blough says, she believes it would still be safe.

“Certainly a child’s finger image won’t harm anyone’s financial status, and the images we have aren’t even enough to do forensic identification,” she says. “We can’t share this with a government agency because it doesn’t contain enough information.”

Mitch Johns, founder and CEO of Foodservice Solutions, the Altoona, Pa.-based company that makes fingerprint scanners, explains that students are not fingerprinted. Instead, the system scans the finger and identifies five points. These points are converted into an algorithm that is attached to an ID number matched to a student.

“Since there’s no stored fingerprint image, the data are useless to law enforcement, which require actual fingerprint images,” Johns says. “There’s no way for any fingerprint or computer expert to extract a record and reconstruct a person’s fingerprint image from purely numerical data, so privacy is protected.”

Proponents of biometric technology say they tried to communicate facts like these to the Florida state senate, to no avail.

“As much as we tried to tell them, over and over, that there was a layer of precaution built in that would prevent identity theft and provided us the fastest means possible of identifying students, they didn’t see it that way,” says Pinellas’ Dunham, who along with two other staff members testified before the state senate about the benefits of palm scanning.

Charles “Bud” Yanak, director of partner and business development for Fujitsu Frontech North America, the company that produced Pinellas’ palm scanners, says Florida’s action was unexpected.

“For a host of reasons, yes, we were surprised,” says Yanak, who also was present at the senate hearing. “First, there are two major biometric providers based in Florida. The president of the International Biometrics Industry Association is based in Florida. And we have Pinellas and other districts who are not only happy with the system, but parents love it, kids love it and it does what they want it to do. Everything was aligned properly in Florida, and then this bill came along.”

Dunham explains that in Pinellas schools 45,000 students use the system every day, “and in a four-year period, only 40 or so parents have said they were upset over the process.” He adds that, anecdotally, parents and school principals have expressed disappointment and concern over the legislature’s decision, “but I don’t have numbers to prove that.” He believes that the removal of the system will have an adverse effect on his program by slowing the lunch lines and making it harder to track free and reduced-price students.

But Hukill says she isn’t sure that biometrics are as safe and secure as advertised, and the benefits aren’t worth the risks.

“If someone hacks your account, you can change your password,” she suggests. “If someone breaches your credit card account, you can get a new card, a new number. With biometrics things don’t change. Barring a serious injury, your fingerprints don’t change, your veins don’t change, your eyes don’t change. And with children, you might not know for years that their identity has been compromised.

“As for those who argue that their systems are secure, the CIA is not secure,” she adds. “I don’t think a school district is secure.”

Mike Webb is a parent of a child in Carroll County, Md., and he became so upset at the district’s attempt to roll out palm scanners two years ago that he started a Facebook page called Ban the Scan. He says he has two major concerns with the use of biometrics—security and “appropriateness.”

“Fingerprints, retina patterns, vein patterns—these are relatively unchanging identifiers,” says Webb, who is the vice president of marketing and data services for an international distribution company. “Even though manufacturers are quick to point out that the system stores a numerical algorithm based on the scan and not a photo image, the fact remains that sufficient information to identify the palm, eye or fingerprints is contained in that algorithm. The manufacturers make a big issue of the encryption of that data, but the fact remains that top government encryption methods [created] just 30 years ago are easily cracked with the computing power of the cell phones we carry in our pockets today.”

Webb believes there are appropriate uses for biometrics, such as for people working with biohazards, genetics or nuclear technology “that require an absolute level of ID.”

“But I think that it is overkill for a child receiving a plate of school pizza and boiled green beans,” he adds. “In addition to the real threat of data security, there is a bigger issue of inuring children to providing such high-level ID information for such trivial items as a daily meal. If they are taught not to question the need to provide such unchanging data in the lunch line, we endanger them to falling victim to other people seeking to misuse that data. To me, this is a very dangerous path to go down.”

But adherents to the technology pooh-pooh such fears as illogical. Janice Kephart, head of the Secure Identity and Biometrics Association, disputes Webb’s assertion that algorithms can be used.

“Biometrics reduces an image to an algorithm, which is worthless to anyone else,” states Kephart, who served as counsel to the 9/11 Commission and also has served as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology and Terrorism. “Unless you have that manufacturer’s algorithm you can’t reverse engineer it, and even if you do it’s not useful unless it’s facial recognition.”

She adds that there are more serious ways for identity theft to occur. “If I lose my driver’s license, there’s a high likelihood of identity theft,” she explains. “There isn’t with my palm. What are you going to do with a map of the veins in someone’s hand? There is no other application you can take that to and make it work. Bottom line, as a parent, if I want to protect my kids’ identity, I want to use biometrics.”

Wood County’s Blough also believes that fears about biometric security are overblown, but she realizes how times have changed.

“I think it would be more difficult for us to introduce this technology today because of the breaches of security that have occurred [in other instances such as the Target breach late last year],” she admits. “There is a lot more theft of information. The wariness is there. It’s unfortunate that what we need in order to have more streamlined operations is being circumvented by fear and somewhat illogical thinking. But I believe that the technology eventually will become more commonplace.”

Fujitsu’s Yanak likens the controversy over biometrics to the consternation that occurred with bar codes 25 years ago.

“I was working for one of the major bar coding companies at the time and I remember that the AARP, of all groups, went crazy,” Yank recalls. “They swore up and down that this was going to confuse seniors and that it was going to ruin the supermarket industry. Now, bar codes are ubiquitous. This is just a speed bump for biometrics.”

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