Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Prime Minister's Office has responded to Tom Watson's petition

We received a petition asking:

"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to ensure that the DFES provide guidelines for the use of biometric technologies in schools."

The Government's response:
The Department for Education and Skills does provide guidance for schools and local authorities on data protection and the security of personal data which would include Biometric data.

However we are currently working with the British Educational and Communication Technology Agency (Becta) and with the office of the Information Commissioner to update the guidance including around the use of Biometric technologies.

Maybe Nick Gibb's and Sarah Teather's parliamentary questions, Jim Knight's 21 written communications, Tom Watson's petition and representaions by concerned parents and civil rights groups has had an effect.

When parliamentary written questions were posed by Nick Gibb and Sarah Teather, as late as October this year, no mention of this guidance was made - but if in the past 60+ days the government have decided to act on drafting some guidelines, then brilliant!

A given time scale would be good though.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Ethics of tracking children's eating habits

Thanks to ARCH blog for highlighting this important issue of ethics brought up in a report by the Institute of Food Research (IFR).


Researchers tracked what children were eating by analysing data from "smartcards", used to buy meals. This method meant the information was "99% accurate" but created "ethical problems" over pupils' privacy.

An Institute of Food Research senior nutritionist said:
"...what a school does with that important health information presents society with an ethical issue".

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Oldham High Schools splash out on biometric technology

High schools in Oldham, Manchester, are spending tens of thousands of pounds on biometric technology to "fight obesity".

After the selling off of school playing fields over the past few decades, is biometric technology really the way to fight obesity?

It would be hoped that the Local Government in Oldham is monitoring the level of obesity in these schools, to see whether justifying the amount of money spent "fighting obesity", via biometrics, does have an effect on the health of our school children.

This is a vast amount of public money. If the technology works - great, but lets see some research BEFORE thousands of pounds is sunk into this technology. Maybe there is some research out there proving that biometric finger scanners in school lunch queues does reduce student obesity - if there is, let me know - I'll gladly publish it here.

I suspect though, "fighting obesity" is yet another glamorous claim that using children's biometrics in school can solve. Lets face it, why aren't the retailers of this technology honest? - because the main aim of biometrics in schools is to monitor and if it was sold on that basis there wouldn't be too much support for it.

Saddleworth School -brought in fingerprint-scanning technology to monitor pupils' eating habits. Details of everything they eat is then kept on file and posted to their parents at the end of each week or term. They have been using it for about a month now.

Kaskenmoor School - installing the scanning equipment and will go live next month.

Failsworth School - may bring in the new technology at its new £28 million site when it opens in 2008. At Failsworth, the fingerprint technology would also be used to sign in pupils at the start of the day - getting rid of the need for traditional registration periods

Failsworth School's head teacher David Johnson said:
"We live in an age of obesity, and this system would mean we could track what pupils are eating and report back to parents. I suppose there is an element of Big Brother."

South Chadderton School - expressed an interest in adopting the new technology

North Chadderton School - uses biometric scanning to allow students to pay for school trips to stop them having to carry large sums of money into school.

(details taken from the Oldham Chronicle)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

‘What are the seven best things you did this past year?’

Just been 'tagged' by ARCH's Blog (thanks!) to list 7 of the best things that I've done this year. So here we go, in no particular order...

1. Had a fabulous family holiday in summer to the Orkney Islands visiting friends who live there - what a stunning place, people friendly, scenary great, hardly any traffic and loads to do. If you're stuck for a holiday, I can highly recommend the Orkney Islands.

2. Discovered Seth Lakeman's music.

3. Cut my working week from 20 hours to 12 hours in July. So now I'm not as constantly tired and have more time with my family- fantastic!

4. Got a dog in February. A black Patterdale Terrier 11 months old. He's a lovely dog and came to us completely house trained and it gets us up and out the house walking him. Here he is --->

5. Started this blog in October and making some headway with getting regulations on the use of biometric technology with children - also have met some good friends along the way.

6. Learnt how to use Photoshop 6 (after many cups of coffee and head scratching).

7. Not everyones highlight of the year but I learnt to cook mousaka. I'm still fine tuning the process as the last one was a bit wierd really, not like the one before but still same receipe - how does that happen? It was that bad I couldn't eat it, kids loved it though and they were okay after it...

Now I've got to tag someone...mmm, well I would have tagged ARCH Blog but they've already been tagged so here goes Andy Clymer, and Eric Dobbs.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Only biometric registration to go!

Dyke House Secondary School in Hartlepool, Cleveland, have just spent £25,000 on a biometric finger scanner for its canteen. Yes, £25,000 for the sake of quicker queues - amazing!

More truthfully, the probable reason Dyke House puchased this technology is so that school managers and parents can monitor what their students are eating. But even so...£25,000?

Can the governors of the school really justify this huge amount of money simply to speed up the dinner lines? Governors are expected to provide good-quality schooling and spend public money wisely. £25,000 is certainly a lot of money to spend on catering technology and this on top of the cost of the biometric scanner they already have in their library.

I’m sure the money already spent could have been used in a way that children actually benefit from, rather than glitzy technology that probably works, certainly makes report generating easier but nevertheless costs the salary of a teacher. The deputy head and the pupils think the system is "fantastic" - but so is a 2 week holiday to the Seychelles or a nice car but it doesn't necessarily justify the cost.

Mind you, Dyke House Secondary School have just won a BECTA award in ICT...

Pointing way to hi-tech future

- TASTY school meals are just a fingertip away for children at a futuristic school.

Pupils at Dyke House Secondary School, in Hartlepool, are enjoying a hi-tech way of paying for their school meals. Instead of paying with standard swipe cards or money, they are using a biometric reading machine. It records unique details from the tips of their fingers which will be converted into a number which they can top up with money.

Deputy headteacher John Taylor said the scheme, which costs £25,000, was “fantastic.” He said: “The pupils can put their dinner money into the machine and it will automatically load into their account the same way a swipe card would work.” Mr Taylor said the pupils think the scheme is fantastic and really hi-tech. “You’d never believe schools would have things like this. “They don’t have to remember their swipe cards - it’s simple, the children can’t forget their fingers.”

He said: “We have been running a similar fingertip recognition system in our library to loan books. I’m almost certain we are the only school in the town to use such a machine.” Mr Taylor added that the lunch queue was now running much quicker and smoother thanks to the new system, which also helps to take away the stigma of which children are eligible for free meals.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Voice biometrics for school catering by 2007

Voice biometrics are to be used in US school cafeterias in 2007. After the initial roll out in the States the companies plan to introduce the technology in Latin America and Asia.

This from TMCnet:

Instead of trying to manage long lunch lines of children scrambling to get a meal, PCS Revenue Control Systems, Inc., provider of point of sale (POS) systems and voice biometrics company, CellMax Systems Inc., are making payment and management of school lunch a more efficient process via their joint voice recognition-based identification, verification and payment system designed specifically for the school lunchroom environment.

Students simply say their name and student number and their account is immediately charged for their meals, allowing them to quickly move through the lunch line and get back to the table to eat. This will save schools time spent trying to keep youngsters orderly as they move through the lines.

Why do educational establishments and advisers think that having fingerprint and voices biometrics will calm children down in lunch queues and stop stigma of free school meals? Has research been done on whether biometric technology has this quietening down effect on students? Really students should be taught to line in an orderly manner and respect that people have varying levels of income, that some people have and some don't have - that's life.

I do have my doubts about the various reasons touted in press releases and the industry's spiel about school biometric systems and why the technology should be in schools. It seems to me that valuable life lessons that children will need as adults, are being overlooked.

The life lesson they will learn that it is okay to compliantly yield their biometric information in exchange for food and learning resources, without knowing who has access to their habits or how their information is used.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Children's attitudes to fingerprinting in schools

Some research has been done, as part of a larger ICT project, on childrens perceptions of biometrics in schools.

The Trustguide, a collaborative research project between BT Group Chief Technology Office Research and Venturing and HP Labs, is part funded by the DTI Sciencewise programme.
The research seeks to build on the previous government sponsored Foresight project concerned with where responsibilities lie in making our future ICT-enabled world safer.

On page 77 of the Trustguide, published in October this year, it states:

In addition, in some of the groups we discovered that their school used fingerprinting to take books out of the library. Once again, there seemed to be little consideration for the potential infringement to privacy or civil rights this posed:

Yeah, it's ok because you want a book.”

“Yeah, because the police could actually get your fingerprint up if they really needed it.”

“It's acceptable because the police can find you if you did something wrong, and there's fingerprints there, you can actually find out who's fingerprint it was, because it might be on the system.”

“It's only on the school records, so, it's only in school.”

“I think it would help in at least trying to identify criminals, or something. If you had all schoolchildren's fingerprints already on record. ”

We asked children how long the school kept their fingerprint records and found that most had not even considered this question and showed little concern:

“I think they keep them for a certain amount of time, a couple of years or something, but I've no idea. I think it's wiped off.”

We considered why this apathy existed. It seemed that none of the attendees were thinking beyond the immediate scenario or what they had been told from ‘trusted’ sources (i.e. their parents, their teachers, or the community policeman). They felt that they could not challenge this viewpoint, or present any alternative views. While beyond the scope of the Trustguide project, this does pose some interesting theories regarding the ‘tipping point’ where children move from being passive learners to actively challenging authority. We saw no evidence of this within our discussions so must conclude it comes, if at all, in later teenaged years.

I think the last paragraph sums up why some parents and civil rights groups are alarmed by biometric technology in schools. Children do learn from trusted sources and don't always challenge why they are being asked to do something.

Adult opinion of the use of biometrics for surveillance are under "Use of biometric data" (page29). It states that:

There were high levels of scepticism and negativity around the use of biometrics and some biometric data was seen as far more controversial than other forms. (page31)

Our discussion around biometric data resulted in some fairly heated debate about why it is necessary to be identified with increasing levels of accuracy, by whom, and indeed, the need to be identified at all, in an increasing array of diverse situations. Much of the discussion focused on the opinion, held by many, that they can already identify themselves via a variety of means. (page32)

Many adults are wary of the use of biometrics for themselves, as the report states. So why is it acceptable for our children in schools to use the technology when we, adults, are skeptical of it?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Plans to scan student fingerprints called off

This article from the LA Times 6 December.

Proposal was supposed to speed food lines and deter theft at
University High, but school district officials scrap the idea after privacy issues are raised.

Ted Faison, a parent of a University senior, had concerns about the legality and constitutionality of fingerprinting students. He decided to try to stop the school from implementing the project after receiving a letter from the school Friday stating the school was to begin scanning the 2,300-plus students starting Monday

"It's a violation of their privacy," he said. "They collect enough information to identify a person's fingerprint, and could easily share this with law enforcement or anyone else. Students would have no control over where the information could be used."

"This is not something we will be using at our schools," said Ian Hanigan, district spokesman. "It's safe to say that this pilot [program] was marched out probably a little too quickly, without the study and evaluation needed to do something like this."

Hector Villagra, director of the Orange County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed. "Parents are rightly concerned about the privacy of their children," he said. "These fingerprint scanners look like overkill. You can do the same identification of students without this type of technology and without the danger of creating a database that could be used for other purposes or that could be breached."

Junior Emerald Greene described the proposal as "creepy.""It is an invasion of privacy because they are monitoring what food I buy and how much money I spend," the 17-year-old said.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

No one admits to fully knowing how many children use their biometrics in schools and for what purposes they use them. Unfortunately therefore, analysis can’t be done to see if children really do read more books, bullying is stamped out at dinner queues and whether installing that £1000’s worth of biometric registration system actually does reduce truancy.

Claims by biometric suppliers to schools are that using biometrics gives:

“More time devoted to teaching - every day and for every student!” and...

“It will help to prevent bullying, by ensuring that students no longer need to carry cash to school” (What message is this sending to children? That carrying cash makes you a victim? Shouldn't the younger generation be taught how to manage money and that our society doesn't tolerate bullies?)

However I suspect that the government new guidelines on detailing pupil absence that came into force this September, school catering revenues/profits down, childhood obesity rising and that literacy rates could be improved could be some of the real reasons to monitor our children with the ease of biometric technology.

Business and government may attempt to sell us on biometric convenience but the use of these technologies are increasingly falling within schools, to one of surveillance and control rather than the initial reason they were invented – for security.

Unless the Government makes an effort to monitor this technology in schools, to see whether having it is necessary over normal electronic systems, a whole generation of children will have a open mindset to blindly giving up their biometric data in exchange for learning resources and food.

What exactly are the next generation learning from this?