Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The bigger picture on how many children are 'experiencing' biometrics in schools 2013

Good that Big Brother Watch's 'Biometrics in Schools' report highlighted schools in the UK taking children's biometrics, though unfortunate that their figures are somewhat diluted as they are based on an alarmingly low response rate to their Freedom of Information Requests (FOIR).

Having a 39% response rate, 1255 replies from FOIRs sent  to 3,218 schools, is worrying as:
A) accurate data cannot be gleaned from it and
B) as schools are increasingly corporatised, does this suggest they see themselves as unaccountable?

But let's face it, if you were a school receiving a FOIR from Big Brother Watch about if/how your school uses children's biometrics you would be inclined not to answer, as legally every answer given under FOIR is "to the world", i.e. public.  Potentially embarrassing.

So if 40% of schools are using children's biometrics, as Big Brother Watch's FOIR response suggests, then when applied to the wider school population of 8.2 million, in England, this means that 3,280,000 children have their biometrics on school databases.  Interesting.  A figure not reported in the media.

But what about the remaining 60% of schools that did not reply to Big Brother Watch's FOIR?

In 2010 I asked 500 schools similar questions about their use of biometric systems for the then Protection of Freedoms Bill committee sitting in Parliament (now an Act of Parliament) and got replies from 47% of schools.  Because the data I had was not accurate enough to submit to the committee, not having got a near 100% replies, I rang round the schools that had not replied.

Two thirds of the secondary schools that did not reply were using biometric systems, so for example, in Liverpool's secondary schools the initial figure I got from the 47% FOIR response rate indicated that only 25% of schools used biometrics.   After ringing round the remaining schools this figure rose significantly to 72% of Liverpool's secondary schools using biometrics.

So does this mean we can apply the same criteria to the 61% of schools that declined to answer Big Brother Watch's FOIR?  In which case we would be looking at over 6.5 million children using their biometrics England's school population of 8.2 million.  A significantly larger figure than is being quoted in the media.

However, the demographic trend is that biometric systems are mostly used in secondary schools.  'Fingerprinting' primary age school children is not quite yet seen as acceptable, having had bad press in the past decade.  Whereas biometric systems in secondary schools are easier to stomach as children of secondary school age could use the technology routinely on their phone, PS and Xbox, etc.

As there are 8.2 million children in England's schools, with schools having children (from Reception, age 4/5, to Year 11, age 15/16) for 12 years, there are approximately 680,000 children per year group.  Perhaps more importantly, there is a need to look at the percentage of children having experienced biometric systems before they left school, i.e. looking at the secondary schools population where biometric technology is predominantly concentrated.  There is potentially a very high level of children passing through this age group experiencing using their biometrics in a school environment, normalising biometric use for fairly mundane transactions

It would only need two or year groups (or even one year of using a biometric system in a school) to accustom a child to the technology.  This may only mean that 1.3 million children have been using biometric systems in secondary schools but a near 100% experience of every child leaving school having experienced the technology.

So I guess the question could be better asked "How many children leaving school have experienced using biometric systems?"

Though still, the sheer numbers of children that have their biometric data on systems in schools, that possibly may be compromised in the future, is still a very valid point.

Thank you Big Brother Watch for highlighting the issue, as it is always good to have this topic in the news, but perhaps in the future more targeted research should be undertaken.

Quality of biometric normalisation does not necessarily lie in quantity of users - a nicely aimed, targeted demographic suffices.


Anonymous said...

When there are so many important intrusions on our liberty, this "story" is a pointless and time-wasting diversion.

I am a school governor and, yes, we do use biometrics. Why? Because feeding over 1,000 students in less than an hour, we recognised the need to speed up payment with a biometric system. Parents place money on the student's account and they spend as required, with parents able to see exactly what they have purchased. Students, especially the younger ones, are notorious for forgetting to take money with them and would easily lose cards. This system ensures no student goes without food and all are served in a timely manner.
There's nothing "Big Brother" about it at all.

I am as concerned as anyone about state intrusion into citizen's personal lives, but this is a red herring and, as I intimated earlier, a pointless subject for pursuit. There are worthy areas for investigation without faffing around with this.

Pippa said...

Thank you for taking the time to post. I respect that people have differing levels of intrusions of privacy and yours is different to mine.

However this is no "Red Herring" and "faffing around" on this topic brought about much needed government legislation in 2012.

It is apparent that teaching children to take resposibility for cards or money is something that is lower on your school's list of priorities than lunch line efficiency. A shame really as looking after money and cards are an important life skill children need to operate in the wider world outside school.