Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Solving problems and proving claims

There is no doubt that biometrics are here to stay and I'm no Luddite about that.  The general use of biometrics in UK society has been introduced to us all via our children, that it 'if' we are even aware they are using the technology.

In my opninion this has been grossly mishandled by the biometric industry.  The perception could be that it has been introduced it by stealth, aided by laws in the UK that have enabled this situation to happen.   In EU countries where Data Protection laws are more stringent, childrens biometrics are very rarely processed in schools.

Claims about biometric technology cannot be scrutenised to any great extent as schools and the previous government's apathy on the subject has not enabled any research to be done.  Hence assertions made by industry and schools in defence of the use of biometrics in schools needs to be questioned. 

Quoting from ASCL's General Secretary Brian Lightman:

"It [biometrics] means that students eligible for free school meals can take them up without being stigmatised"   So does a pin number system or alternative touch system.  No 'expensive' cards necessarily needed.  If a school can get pupils to pass exams then it can surely get a pupil to remember a pin number.

"...and parents know their children are not buying lunch at the chip shop."   Use a pin number system or alternative touch system.

"These systems prevent fraud and, with dinner money, intimidation and theft by other pupils." 
Use a pin number system or alternative touch system.  I've heard many an argument that using biometrics reduces bullying, such a claim indeed.  Bullying exists in schools, therefore the school should deal with different bullying situations and teach children what is and what is not acceptable behavior, in all circumstances.

"Systems using cards are more expensive to install, more open to abuse and not as effective as cards are often lost, stolen or simply left at home."  Use a pin number system or alternative touch system.

However, it could be argued that there are more benefits to the pupils than the administration of a school of having a card system. I.e. to encourage pupils to look after their identity, be aware where it is, how they have used it, see possible consequences if their identity card is lost, etc, none of which biometrics can really offer in the same way at the moment.

If the introduction use of biometrics had been made in the adult market in the UK we could possibly teach our chidlren how to manage the use of our biometrics, learn to keep track of where we have left our biometrics, who can access our biometric data and the data held against it, possible interoperability of biometric databases and where biometric data might end up, etc.   We are unable to do this and I would interested to know if schools are doing this - my guess is they are not.

"The information could not be used to identify a student outside of the school, by the police or any other outside organisation."  How does he know that for sure?  As the ASCL and the biometric industry have close links maybe he got told that by them?

The reality is that there is software that enables Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS) to communicate with each other so the possibility is there - see this link. Have any checks been carried out to see if his statement is correct? - no.

“Schools and colleges have invested heavily in this technology"  You bet they have Brian. Here's Staffordshire County Council spending up to £4 million pounds on it.

And lastly...

“Biometrics in schools are a problem for a small number of pressure groups, not for parents."   I'm a parent and the Leave Them Kids Alone website was set up by a concerned parent too.

In fact, as far as I know, any website dealing specifically with the civil liberties issues raised by using biometrics in schools, have been set up and run by parents. Oh, and the reason why privacy groups have brought up the matter of schools fingerprinting children without our knowledge, is mainly because we parents have contacted them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

...and figures from Freedom of Information Requests

After looking at the secondary school biometric figures yesterday I thought it might be useful to take a look at the primary school market.

I sent a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) out last year to over 500 schools last February/March 2010, to both primary and secondary, about the use of biometrics in schools.

4% of primary schools that responded had biometric systems.
39% of high schools that responded had biometric systems.

These figures are by no means precise as the overall response to the FOIA was poor.  The reality is that there are no collection of figures nationally and with poor response rates from schools it is impossible to gain any accurate figures.

Nevertheless, working with the results we have, this is does give a loose indication of where the UK school biometric market lies.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Figures, damned figures and statistics

Following on from the previous post we are looking at the 'joint' article published on the 15th April by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and Planet Biometrics.

"Figures come from Biostore, the main supplier of identity management systems to secondary schools. Its client base includes over 1000 secondary schools, and it estimates that well over 1 million students use its finger based biometrics daily. Biostore’s work with schools shows that 2 users per 1000 decline to use biometrics. A 99.8% uptake of a voluntary process reflects the views of most of the public on this subject"

Both articles quote the above which is by the company Biostore who sell school biometric management systems.  They understandably have a commercial interest to state that biometrics have a high take up in schools.  It is taken from their written submission to the Freedom Bill.

  • Did parents specifically sign for consent?
  • Was it a parental opt out scenario, 'implied consent'?
  • Did the parents even know that their children were using their biometrics?
  • Is the 99.8% figure an indication of the uptake of children in a compliant school environment or an indication from fully informed parents and specifically gaining written consent?

Without knowing the answers to these questions the above statement is ambiguous and figures quoted should be questioned.  For Biostore to then assume that the 99.8% uptake in schools reflects the general populations view on this is, in my opinion, rather hopeful.

I can only speak from experience, where in my sons primary school when parents were specifically asked by letter to sign to consent to the school using biometrics, approximately 20% of parents did not consent for their childrens biometrics to be processed.  The school biometric system is now not in use.

Interestingly there are 3722 secondary schools in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) with 3,560,384 pupils.  If Biostore's "client base includes over 1000 secondary schools, and it estimates that well over 1 million students use its finger based biometrics daily" taking the figures literally at 1000 schools that means Biostore, at the very least, has 28% of the total schools biometric market.

Both articles quote that there is evidence that "30% of secondary schools have biometric systems".

Are we then to believe that one company, Biostore, has 93% of the high school market share...? 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Planet Biometrics and the ASCL are literally singing from the same hymn sheet

How funny!  Planet Biometrics and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) on the 15th April both issued a news item about the use of biometrics with children in UK schools.  It is virtually identical, word for word.  What are the coincidences? 

What I want to know is, who wrote the article?   Planet Biometrics?...because they are worried about sales figures, or the ASCL? ...because they cannot be bothered to fully involve parents with this emerging technology? 

Both articles go on about how it will heavily inconvenience them both to fully involve parents with the storing and processing of their chidlrens biometrics - my heart is bleeding, really.   Although my heart is also warmed to see the biometric industry and schools working so closely, one could say almost psychically, together on this... though quite where the parents or childrens interest is in all this isn't clear from their articles.

On the plus side, it had been a bit slack on the biometrics in schools news front recently so it's nice for them to have jointly given me the opportunity to blog again.  In the next few days we'll look at exactly what the ASCL and Planet Biometrics are saying in their, seemingly, very joint statements and see whether or not it holds up.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Freedom Bill

Without wanting to nit-pick points too much and argue with written submissions to the Freedom Bill Committee, I just wish to point out some facts to balance up statements made on the use of biometrics in schools included in some submissions.

The The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) have submitted a written submission to the Freedom Bill committee:

ASCL: "It is not clear why schools and further education colleges, respectable and responsible public bodies, are singled out in this chapter. If this data [children's biometrics] could be misused, it is surely more likely to be so by other organisations than these..."

Schools and further education are singled out because there has been, and still is, a parental backlash and worries, as posts to this blog will reveal and I am sure the Leave Them Kids Alone website would back this up too. And because childrens fingerprint biometrics do get stolen, potentially misused, as mentioned by one supplier of biometric systems to schools, details here,

ASCL: "School and college leaders are not aware of the use of this kind of technology causing any problems for any young person, nor of any but very isolated concern about its use amongst parents"

Well... no need to go any further than my previous post on this one, as teachers themselves won't use their biometrics, according to one of the biggest teaching Unions NASUWT, as they consider it "an infringement on their civil liberties". 

The Home Office's advice to the Freedom Bill Committee on children understanding the issues of schools using their biometrics: "The issues around the use of biometric data are particularly subtle and complex, and even more mature children may not be able to fully appreciate them. In other areas such as marriage and making a will children under the age of 18 need parental consent. In our view the issues around the giving of biometric data are similar in that respect."