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Authorities differ on finger scanning

September 6, 2013
By Michael Green Fonte - Staff Writer , The Inter-Mountain

Editor's Note: This is the second article in a two-part series looking at the Barbour County school system's new finger-scanning program.

On Monday, the Barbour County school system will begin scanning Philip Barbour High School students' fingerprints as part of the school lunch program. Education officials and the company providing the technology stand behind the safety of the process, but can the scanning system be abused?

Can the biodata be shared?

School officials promise to never allow the students' fingerprint data to be given to outside parties, including law enforcement. While they may be able to stand by their promise to never voluntarily share the students' data, an unforeseen event may force them to cooperate with law enforcement and the justice system.

A subpoena, a search warrant or a federal administrative search warrant can force a school official to hand over any school records, including biometric data.

It has also been stressed by supporters of finger scanning that the minutiae data collected by the process would be useless to anyone who got their hands on it. However, members of the biometrics community, including Arun Ross, associate professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University and adjunct professor at West Virginia University, have repeatedly shown that minutiae can be used to reconstruct fingerprints.

According to a group opposed to finger scanning called Leave Them Kids Alone (LTKA), "The U.S. government's official National Science & Technology Council says you can reconstruct a fingerprint image from a fingerprint template.

"Government security experts have successfully hacked the fingerprint scanners used in schools," a LTKA representative told a British newspaper. "Schools cannot possibly provide the level of security necessary to protect children's data. A school might not even be aware that children's data had been compromised until it was far too late."

Other uses by schools?

The Barbour County school system plans to only use the biodata for cafeteria purposes, but some principals may be tempted to use it for other functions.

IdentiMetrics scanners, the brand to be used in Barbour County, were added to the lunch lines in Licking Heights, Ohio. The local newspaper, The Newark Advocate, reported that food service director Ginger Parsons said, "You can also use it to know, for security, who is in your building."

Jay Fry, identiMetrics president and CEO, said he has talked to many principals that would like to use the software, if possible, to locate missing children in emergency situations.

While Fry says his company's software can't be used for other purposes even if a school principal tried, it's been established that fingerprint reconstruction is possible. Plus, there is no way to predict that a new technology won't emerge that the school could combine with identiMetrics to update the number of applications it could use on students.

What does state law say?

Eliza Cordeiro, spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Education, said of Barbour County's using scanners, "We leave it up to county decision."

However, the department is providing the money that Barbour County schools is using to buy the scanning equipment, Tammy Martin, the Barbour school system's child nutritionist, said.

In two states, the choice to scan students has been taken away from local school districts.

In the state of Michigan, finger scanners in schools are illegal. The Michigan attorney general ruled that they violate children's privacy and therefore violate the state's Child Identification and Protection Act.

Iowa has passed a law similar to that in Michigan, which enacts restrictions of finger scanning use.

In the United Kingdom, Parliament has even had an effect on finger scanning.

According to the Daily Mail newspaper, "Parliament has passed a law making it illegal to collect biometric data from children without prior written parental consent, or if the children object."

Parliament's action came after criticism of opt-out programs rather than opt-in.

"Schools do not assume consent for school trips," reported the Sovereign Independent UK. "Why then assume parents have already consented for the school to take, store and process a child's biometric data?"

The Barbour County school system is conducting an opt-out program, which is the type that Parliament has made illegal. The school will automatically assume the parents have no objection to taking their children's biometric data, unless parents write a letter to the school stating they want their child out of the program. The school must receive the letter by Monday. Those who opt out will continue to pay for meals through the existing methods.

Are there other


Paul Sheridan, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said the ACLU's position is that finger scanning is "not a good idea." Sheridan discussed more than one reason to oppose scanning.

"Collecting biometric information has wide-ranging implications," said Sheridan. Once information is scanned there is no way to predict, or make guarantees, of what might happen to it in the future, he explained.

"This sends the wrong message to kids. They will feel like they're in a prison," Sheridan said. "Children should be known by their names and faces. This dehumanizes them. You should be known by what makes you a human being."

For years, Kim Cameron, the former chief architect of identity and access in Microsoft's Connected Systems Division, has written about the progress of biometrics technology. He has repeatedly argued against the use of biometrics in schools.

"People have to be stark, raving mad to use conventional biometrics to improve the efficiency of a children's lunch line," said Cameron.

Can parents stop the scanning?

There have been numerous schools across the country where finger scanning has been stopped due to parental complaints.

In Orange County, Calif., in 2006, University High School officials attempted to use identiMetrics on the lunch line. Parents complained it would create a "Big Brother" effect and the school canceled it.

The Taunton school district in Massachusetts, in 2007, voted to install finger scanners in the cafeteria. When parents teamed up with the state ACLU, the school stopped the program.

What do supporters say?

Despite the critics, more schools have embraced finger scanning than rejected it.

Fry said, "We are in tens of thousands of schools, if not in the hundreds of thousands."

School systems using identiMetrics can be found throughout West Virginia, including Parkersburg, Wheeling and Martinsburg. Barbour County can find the closest testimonies just over two of their borders: both Randolph County and Taylor County are already using identiMetrics equipment.

Mary Tucker, director of child nutrition for Taylor County schools, said the county has been using the finger scanners for more than two years in all three county schools.

"It's been very successful," said Tucker. "It eliminates human error and the students move through the lines quicker. The cafeteria is loud, and the cashiers can sometimes not hear the students' names."

Superintendent of Randolph County Schools Terry George had only good things to say about the use of scanners in cafeterias.

"They allow us to serve more students in a given amount of time," he said. "Finger scanners are so much faster than telling a number to a cashier."

George said the scanners are only in Elkins High School and Elkins Middle School now, but officials plan on adding them to Tygarts Valley High School. He said there haven't been any complaints from parents recently.

"Originally when the program started there were a very small number of parents who opted out," he said.

The identiMetrics website showcases many testimonials, including ones from schools in Philadelphia, upstate New York, Hawaii, Newark and Alabama.

Critics still claim, however, that any risk is too much when it comes to child identity theft and privacy, and insist that using biometrics on children is dehumanizing.



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