Wednesday, May 11, 2022

State of Biometrics 2022 - a review of policy and practice in UK education

I co-authored a report with Jen Persson from DefendDigitalMe, 'The State of Biometrics 2022 - a review of policy and practice in UK education', which was published last week.  There is no collection, monitoring, record of biometric technology in schools held by any UK government department, regulator or commissioner so information in the report was obtained by Freedom of Information requests and research collated over the number of years I've been doing this blog.

There is definitely further research and questions to be answers and issues to be resolved following the publication.  

Biometric technology has crept from school services, canteen, library, etc, into the classroom - where 'sensors' (cameras) now scrape data from children into a group view for teachers and management to gauge real time interest in lessons, engagement, attentiveness and emotion.  This behavioural data capture is classed as biometric data under the Protection of Freedoms Act, Chapter 2 (28)(2).

From PRNewswire:

"ViewSonic Corp., a leading global provider of visual solutions, has partnered with the Smestow Academy in Wolverhampton, England, as the first school in the UK to deploy the AI-powered myViewBoard Sens analysis tool in the classroom. Through the real-time insights generated by the intelligent sensor, the school can ensure the classroom follows the wellness compliance, increase students' engagement, and facilitate a safe and active learning environment for the best possible learning outcome."


The Report in summary

The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 and weak enforcement of data protection law are failing to protect millions of children from the normalisation of routine use of biometric data for everyday canteen and library transactions, and increasingly intrusive bodily surveillance in the classroom. 

Pupils in the UK are effectively guinea pigs in the use of emerging technology for companies from around the world, including facial recognition technology that has already been banned from schools in other countries.

Some companies claim that their products can measure mood and attentiveness, or use artificial intelligence to manage behaviour-based classroom planning. Some companies even claim to be able to detect autism without any child development expertise.

How this normalisation and these emerging products may affect the full and free development of the child are yet to be seen.

The fast-growing uses of intrusive technology involving bodily data in educational settings worry child rights advocates and law makers alike. 

Lord Paul Scriven said, “As parents you should be very worried and angry that private companies are seeking to make a profit from your child’s face, fingers, eyes and other personal characteristics while trying to pretend that it is all to aid their educational attainment. Where do we draw the line?”

  • Data from FOI requests to schools (all UK) Our findings from enquiries to 550 schools with over a quarter of a million pupils in total, suggests that around three quarters of secondary schools are using fingerprint technology or other biometrics, and where used, uptake is routinely 85%, or more where use is restricted to only certain year groups.
  • Despite the law requiring consent some schools in England are discriminating against children in receipt of Free School Meals (FSM) by obliging them to use the fingerprint systems, and others make it obligatory for all pupils. (We are yet to quantify these issues and plan to continue further research.)
  • Emerging technologies, school trials and scope creep including under COVID. Schools started using facial recognition more widely in 2020. At least one school got new facial recognition technology free, “as part of a trial”. Some schools combined entry access readers with thermal and facial detection. Some are trialling “experimental” products including attentiveness and mood detection that are unevidenced in their intended outcomes or in any unintentional effects on children’s behavioural and cognitive development in UK classrooms. Voice is rarely considered under school biometrics policies whereas fingerprint technology is now routine.
  • Lack of regulatory enforcement. Six months after North Ayrshire schools in Scotland put their facial recognition rollout on pause, there has been no visible ICO regulatory enforcement action. We include a latest position statement in the report.
  • Large multinational companies have bought out the originally small school biometrics suppliers and many significant UK school providers are owned in the US, Canada and Israel.
  • Parents’ survey findings (2018) Survation polled 1,004 parents with children in state schools on behalf of defenddigitalme about their experience of technology in schools. Over a third of parents (38%) whose children were using biometrics in school, said they had not been offered any choice despite the law that requires parental consent, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, and over 50% of parents had not been informed how long their child’s  fingerprints or other biometric data is retained or when the data would be destroyed.

Professor Fraser Sampson, Commissioner for the Retention and Use of Biometric Material and Surveillance Camera Commissioner and author of the report foreword, suggests there is inadequate oversight of school procurement among wide ranging comments.  “Some – including, surprisingly, the Department for Education – appear to have taken the view that bare compliance with Chapter 2 of the Act is all that is required to ensure the lawful, ethical and accountable use of biometric surveillance in schools.” He asks five key questions of practice in schools: Who's benefiting? Who's watching? Whose company are you keeping? Where's the push? And, Why the rush?

There are no UK national requirements for any quality or health and safety standards of biometric or AI technology when used by state schools, and no oversight or record of what is used where.

Current legislation is ineffective in protecting children’s and students’ rights in educational settings from age 2-25 and change is needed now. defend digital me is calling for a ban on biometric systems in educational settings.

Authors: Pippa King and Jen Persson

Artwork: Hannah Mallory