Education
6:12 pm
Fri July 26, 2013

Schools' Identifying Students By Body Parts Raises Privacy Concerns

In the crowded cafeteria at Tallahassee’s Cobb Middle School, lunch monitors try to steer students to seats as quickly as possible. Across the state, public schools face the challenge of feeding lots of kids in a short amount of time.

“We’re no longer in the one room school house that has 25 kids in it," said Pinellas County Food Service Director Art Dunham. He says when lunch lines start to back up—it doesn’t give some kids much time to eat:

"We have thousands of schools and thousands of students. We have over 100-thousand students in Pinellas County and only a half-hour to feed them. We have to have a lightening speed way of recognizing each child.” 

School lunches are federally subsidized and school districts must track how many students use the lunch program. To do that, most districts make students input ID numbers manually.  But Dunham says that proved inefficient.  So two years ago, Pinellas schools installed a system where students swipe their palms across an infrared light reader and move on:

“Perhaps when you were a child you might have taken a flashlight and put it to the palm of your hand you can see the veins? It reads the veins under the skin. The vein patterns under the skin."

Dunham says that’s boosted both the accuracy and the speed of the lunch line system, with kids getting through faster, and having longer to eat. The company that makes Pinellas County’s system only sells to schools and Dunham says the data is deleted when students leave.

"So it’s not involved with any law enforcement, Interpol, anywhere in the world, no one uses this technology to identify people.”  

Though he says there haven’t been many complaints, the system is still voluntary for those who remain skeptical.

“Kids are into technology. And within short order, they’re doing it also. It’s voluntary and we’ve asked the parents to send in an opt out form rather than getting permission from each parent," Dunham said.

School districts across the nation are adopting security systems that collect biological data for identification purposes. The issue recently caused a stir in Florida when Polk County Schools decided to incorporate biometric data systems.  Now the use iris scans and similar tech could soon be banned in Florida schools.

In Polk county, an attempt to better secure school buses was met with more resistance. The school district launched a pilot program allowing a security company to install iris scanners on school buses at three of its schools.  But the scanners were installed without telling parents first. Polk school district officials declined to comment on the program for this story, but referred to articles published in the Lakeland Ledger newspaper. According to the Ledger, the maker of the system, Stanley Convergent Security Solutions, had already scanned the eyes of about 750 students.

The company says it’s deleted the biometric data it had collected, but parents remain concerned about the potential for databases of information on their children. Yvette Acosta McMillian, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says, her group shares those concerns:

“I can tell you the ACLU of Florida is opposed to the use of biometrics in schools," she said.

McMillian says biometric information is harmless in a vacuum.  But combined with other data collected by the government and social media sites, the potential for danger grows.

“If you want to have access to your personal computer and provide your fingerprint. That’s fine. But it’s not the government collecting all this data.”

A Miami-Dade School Board member expressed concerns about biometrics in a Huffington Post editorial. The ACLU’s McMillian says a draft bill is in the works which would ban the systems. Still, other school districts will never implement the systems because they’re seen as too costly.

Biometric systems use in Florida schools is relatively new, and the Florida Department of Education says its not aware of any rules or legislation on the topic. But in a statement, Department spokesman Joe Follick said "parents deserve the right to feel confident that personal information is being used properly and securely. We are reviewing the topic as we begin to prepare our legislative agenda for next year’s session.”

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