Tuesday, February 27, 2007

'Alarm at fingerprinting of pupils' in Suffolk

A Freedom of Infromation request in Suffolk by a journalist, in this article, has uncovered that out of the county's 356 schools, 83 are using biometrics recognition systems.

That is just over 23% of Suffolk's school children, around 20,000 children.

One child's biometric fingerprints were taken without his parents consent:

Jonathan Adams' 11-year-old son was fingerprinted at East Bergholt High School for his library card. Mr Adams, a filmmaker from Hadleigh, said:

“When he came home and said he'd been fingerprinted I couldn't believe it. I think it's completely wrong. Children are having their human rights infringed upon and what's more schools don't even have to ask for parental permission.

It's about time more people knew what was going on.”

And the same old "it's not a fingerprint but a number" argument is rolled out yet again, quoted by Steve Howard, Head of Corporate Information and Records at Suffolk County Council.

Steve Howard is probably unaware that he may be responsible for undertaking the massive task to ensure that at the end of each school year, professional data cleansing companies go into each and every one of the 83 schools to erase the children's biometric data when they move from primary to high school and from high school at 16 - but is he aware of this?...probably not.

The full list of the 83 schools is at the end of the article.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Best Practice?

On 9th February this year another advisory statement was issued by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) telling schools how to erase children's biometric data from school computers by using professional data cleansing companies, quoted here in the last paragraph of this article:

"...under the data protection act schools must also dispose of the data using professional data cleansing companies once the child has left or if it no longer of use."

Why isn't there a concise page advising schools on how to handle children's biometrics on the ICO's website after 6 years of biometric technology in schools?

Granted the ICO is now working with BECTA and the DfES to issue guidelines, to put on BECTA's website, so the above 'data cleansing' advice will presumably be in the guidelines.

Currently LEA's, schools, governors and parents have dribs and drabs fed by ICO's spokespersons to various media outlets for them to deem what the 'best practice' in schools is with regards to biometric fingerprint technology.

In the recent case of a school scrapping a biometrics, children's biometric data was on the school computer system for over a year unused before it was deleted, and probably when the school did destroy the biometric records they didn't use a data cleansing company - but how would they to know what to do?

"The thumbprint system has not been used for more than a year...and the numerical records of the thumbprints were destroyed last week."

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Evidence to support claims needed

"I have not been able to find a single piece of published research which suggests that the use of biometrics in schools promotes healthy eating or impoves reading skills amongst children. I am concerned that these reasons are being given as a justification for fingerprinting children. There is absolutely no evidence for such claims."

Dr Sandra Leaton Gray, Director of Studies, Sociology of Education, Homerton College, Cambridge, 20 Feb 2007, quoted here.

As biometric data logging systems have been in some schools for 5-6 years there should be enough evidence now to research whether the claims that made are actually true, so that when quotes such as the ones below are spouted by Local Education Authorities and companies selling the technology to schools, there is evidence to back up claims made.

If the claims are true then prices of up to over £20,000, in one school, should require a cost analysis looking at whether the benefits of the system can be justified against the cost.

If there is no evidence to support claims, then research should at least be done to see whether or not using these systems in school actually does benefit our children.

If there is factual evidence/independant research to support claims made then I, along with government ministers, academics and parents, would be interested in reading it.
"Council bosses are working on a county-wide roll-out [Lancashire] of a scheme which uses electronic scanners to allow pupils to pay for their lunch using their fingers...Council officials say it will make children healthier"

"Mr Sanderson [Education director] that the system had increased book borrowing and reduced theft"

"More time devoted to teaching - every day and for every student!"

"It will help to prevent bullying, by ensuring that students no longer need to carry cash to school"

Monday, February 19, 2007

It's not a fingerprint but a number...

Too often the argument in defence of fingerprinting children in school is that "the system doesn't store a fingerprint, but a number". So that's okay then...

This is quoted 'ad lib' to the press by schools and bio-companies targeting schools.

What is stored is the digital equivalent of a fingerprint, uniquely identifiable to a particular person/child - otherwise if the biometric technology used in schools couldn't identify a particular child (via their fingerprints) the systems wouldn't work and issue library books, logged meals eaten, track a child's whereabouts, etc, against a child's name.

The police now use very similar systems, in the fact that they too use digital technology to store and compare fingerprints, to the systems used in schools.

The argument "that it's not a fingerprint that is stored" is irrelevant as it is fingerprint data that stored on a school database which is relatively insecure in comparison to the importance placed on storing biometrics on databases that large IT companies have.

As Andy Clymer states in a paper he has written: "No system can guaranteed the security of information against future technology. Attempting to protect life time relevant information is extremely tricky and potentially costly."

On that note, the computers of the future are just about here. Welcome to quantum computing which "...has IT security firms and spooks afraid their current encryption technologies will be rendered obselete when a quantum computer with hundreds of qubits arrives.."

Estimated time of arrival - 2008

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Schools that have scrapped or are opposed to biometrics

Over on the Leave Them Kids Alone site two pages have been added listing schools that will not use biometric technology and those that have used it and scrapped it.

There are four schools in the UK currently that have scrapped fingerprinting/iris scanning, the most recent being yesterday, and biometrics were tried in school(s) in Dundee then dropped. Concerns were over the controversy and because allegedly the technology didn't work efficiently.

One school in China and one in Hong Kong have tried the fingerprint technology and consequently scrapped it amongst privacy concerns with two schools in the US rejecting biometrics.

The figures are tiny in comparison to the numbers of children with their biometric information on databases in schools but reading some of the comments on LTKA's site, from teachers and staff in schools that will not have biometric scanners installed, re-enforces the issue that using biometrics in schools is proving contentious.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Early Day Motion support in Westminster and a Motion in the Scottish Parliament

Early Day Motion 686 has got cross party support regarding concerns about biometric technology, parental consent and unregulated data collection systems.

Conservative Party - 11
Democratic Unionist Party - 1
Independent - 1
Labour Party - 7
Liberal Democrats - 35
Social Democratic and Labour Party - 2

In Scotland the MSP Patrick Harvie has a motion S2M-5567 urging for guidance on biometric technology in schools with 10 signatures.

S2M-5567 Patrick Harvie: Biometric and Surveillance Systems in Schools—That the Parliament notes the recent decision by UK ministers to issue guidance to schools on the use of biometric systems; welcomes the acknowledgement that a completely unregulated approach to such technologies is inappropriate; notes that biometric systems are in place in some Scottish schools; is concerned that the Scottish Executive’s initial description of parental consent as an "essential pre-requisite" before children can be fingerprinted has now been rephrased as merely a matter of "good practice"; considers that there is a need for clear guidance from the Executive on the use of biometric and surveillance systems in schools before any increase in their use is contemplated; notes that section 8 of the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill is expected to lead to increased use of such systems; urges the Executive to produce guidance for education authorities on the implementation of section 8 and, in so doing, to give clear preference to systems other than those involving biometric and data-gathering technology; further notes that recent calls have been made for schools to introduce ID cards, CCTV, airport-style security scanners and random drug testing, and considers that wider debate is required on the role, if any, of such measures, the impact they may have on school culture and the limits within which they should operate.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Local councillors are uneasy about biometrics in schools

Local councillors across the country are now beginning to ask questions and raise concerns about the lack of concrete guidance or regulations from the Government on this.

A question here from Margaret Featherstone (Lib Dem) at Kent County Council, this from Steve Wakefield (Cons) in West Swindon and a question in Portsmouth from Luke Stubbs (Question 3, page2)

One council in the south of England are surveying their area to determine the percentage of schools that are using biometric fingerprint technology so they know how widespread this is.

It is commendable that this council is undertaking this task but it highlights a poor state of affairs when central government and the Information Commissioners Office are not interested in the types of databases, the technology used, how secure the databases are, or who potentially has access to data, and the reasons why the next generations biometrics are being taken from them quite often without parental consent.

"Reduce your risk; only store what you really need"

I'm going to blog about Andy blogging because it's a great post making some valid points and I cannot put it any better!

So here is the link.

The article from The Register that Andy links to, 'Investigators uncover dismal data disposal' by Lucy Sherriff, is one I hadn't seen before and shows how easily disposal of data can be mishandled.

For me one of the best quotes from Dfes with regard to schools holding biometric data is:-

"They are well used to handling all kinds of sensitive information to comply with data protection and confidentiality laws."

Schools have historically failed here; a forensic computer science faculty bought hard drives off ebay, and extracted school records: [see link...]


A colleague also told me recently how he took a school computer out of a skip...Personally I don't condemn the schools here after all their primary focus is on education and not on securing personal information.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Biometrics in schools spread to Europe

Two Belgium schools introduce biometric technology into the classroom admist privacy fears.

"The Commission for the Protection of Privacy complained that none of the schools consulted them before installing fingerprint recognition systems."

This is one of the first instances of this technology appearing on the European mainland and it seems by the report the technology is installed without co-operation of parents and consultation with privacy groups - the usual story - much as it is over here.

Government to "issue" guidelines via the BECTA website

Labour's Education Department are going to 'issue' guidelines via the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency's website (BECTA) at the end of March 2007 about the use of biometric technology in schools.

No guidance is going direct to teachers, parents or governors, but just placed on a NGO's website - not even a government run site.

No consultation or attempt to hear concerns or issues surrounding this technology is being sought other than the Information Commissioners Office.

A very disappointing show from Labours Education Dept and the DfES, but I have to say not a surprise.

Detail here by the BBC.

N.B. - Just a quick point to note, that in recent media a number of 3500 schools is being banded about (approx. 700,000 children) that are using this technology. This figure is from one manufacturer of a library system and is from from this article in the Daily Mail and is over 6 months old. The market has expanded quite considerably since then with over 15+ companies offering biometirics to schools. No one knows to what extent this is in our education system, these out of date figures are sadly all we have to go on.

So 6 months on I'm presuming the figure now is probably well over 1 million children with their biometric data on schools computors.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

How biometric fingerprint scanners work

After yesterday's post I thought it might be good to look at how the technology works for those of you that are interested.

I have had a few 'comments' on my blog highlighting me to the fact it is not an actual fingerprint that is stored but an algorithm, which I was well aware of anyway, but for those of you who are as hazy as I was initially, on how biometric data is taken from a fingerprint, please use the below links.

A great website that gives a fairly detailed but easily understandable view on most types of biometrics is here.

This website details here on the characteristics of fingerprints and this page deals with how points on the fingerprint are converted into an algorithm number string.

When I had contact with Micro Librarian Systems (MLS) that supplied my children's primary school with the biometric fingerprint scanner 18 months ago, they sent me this document detailing the technology that they employed - Enterprise Security Architecture for Biometric User Authentication Systems developed by Digital Persona.

Could it be argued that the points on a fingerprint stored in an algorithm can determine race and ethnicity? - I don't know...

Are the images of a children's fingerprint removed from a school computor when they are initially scanned? - Truely deleting data or temporary files from a hard drive does not merely involve pressing "delete". Temporary files may be stored for a time scale also...

Research needs to be done exploring these (and other) issues relating to children and biometric technology.

Children as young as 3 years old are having their biometric data taken and stored on school/nursery databases here in the UK and, as with all techonogies, there is the remote possibly that their (biometric) data could be compromised in decades to come.

We need to make informed decisions now about how we as a society proceed with children and biometric technology.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Fingerprint characteristics are able to determine race and ethnicity

Biometric fingerprint technology uses points on the fingerprint that translate into a large number string, algorithm, and that the fingerprint itself is not stored. Although on some systems used in schools an image of a fingerprint does appear on screen when initially scanned.

One can get tied up in the technicalities of the systems, as using biometrics with children poses a whole host of issues.

However fingerprint characteristics can help determine race and ethnicity. Presumably therefore classing fingerprints as "sensitive data" under the UK Data Protection Act as stated in Part 1, Section 2 (a)

"sensitive personal data" means personal data consisting of information as to-
(a) the racial or ethnic origin of the data subject

To collect sensitive data you are legally obliged to obtain specific written consent from the data subject unless you have a legal reason to collect the data. Individuals must be given sufficient information to ensure that they understand what is involved in the research and what will happen to their data.

This article that states it is possible that fingerprints can place race types:

Our society has given the genetic trait of skin colour the special privilege of being the dividing line between human races. But fingerprint types, blood types, or any one of the other 25 per cent of genes that vary among humans could just as logically be used.

A racial world based on fingerprint types, for example, would place most Europeans and Africans in the "Loops" race; Mongolians and Australian aborigines would be proud members of the "Whorls".

And more evidence here too:

...other researchers found rough correlations between fingerprint pattern type and ethnicity, heredity and even some health factors. These correlations, especially the ethnic ones, have proven robust and still hold up today

...the perceived “emptiness” and harmlessness of fingerprint patterns is a social achievement, not a natural fact.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Poor data security in schools and still no debate

James Meikle writes here in the Guardian, about the debate (or parliamentary lack of it) concerning schools using children's biometric data for borrowing books, registration and food monitoring.

Mr Greg Mulholland MP said:

"There are parents not being asked about the use of biometric data in schools, and in some cases are not even informed [that] their children are having fingerprints or other forms of data taken. No one seems to know how long this kind of data is stored.

There clearly is potential for abuse. It is extraordinary that the government is not prepared to bring this to parliament and debate it."

The issue of schools failing to protect sensitive information was recently highlighted in the Guardian December 2006, as 'concerning':

"Schools are failing to protect sensitive information about young children, such as their home addresses and medical details, research has found.

More than half of primary schools are not keeping such information secure."

This shows the need all the more for this to be debated urgently. Apart from the insecurities in school that may stem from bad practice concerning children's data protection, when schools get burgled it's not pens and paper that gets stolen - it's computers.