"Fingerprints are forever": Battle over using biometrics in school continues

Published 2 April 2008

Arizona has been a battleground for the use of biometric technology in schools; citing the threat of identity theft, senators pass measure requiring parental consent before any biometric information is collected from children; “Fingerprints are forever,” says sponsoring senator

We have written about school lunchroom workers using fingerprint scanners to speed up lunch lines, facial-recognition programs determining whether students are registered under false names, and iris scans making sure an adult is authorized to pick up a child from school. We have also written about school — and nurseries’ — administrators praising the adoption of biometric technologies, and about parents and privacy advocates pushing back. An Arizona state senator belongs in the biometrics critics camp, and he is now sponsoring legislation which would allow families to keep their children’s biometric information from schools says the technology isn’t that far away. The Arizona Republic’s Lauren Proper writes that Senator Karen Johnson (R-Mesa) is sponsoring Senate Bill 1216, which originally called for a ban but now would require schools to obtain parental consent if they wish to collect fingerprints, retinal or iris scans, voice or facial recognition samples or hand geometry from students. Johnson said it’s important to safeguard students’ privacy because biometric information could get into the wrong hands and expose children to identity theft. “You can cancel a credit card, but you can’t cancel a fingerprint,” Johnson said. “Fingerprints are forever.”

The bill received preliminary approval last Thursday in the Senate. Meeting as the Committee of the Whole, senators approved a floor amendment by Senator Linda Gray (R-Phoenix) which removed language calling for a ban and substituted the parental-consent requirement. Johnson said she hopes to have the bill amended in the House to restore the original language. Representative Andy Biggs (R-Gilbert) is sponsoring a similar bill, House Bill 2168, which has won approval from the House and is awaiting committee action in the Senate. Groups representing school administrators, school boards, and school business officials registered their opposition to Johnson’s original bill, while the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona registered its support. Michael Smith, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Administrators, said biometrics could potentially reduce administrative costs and make schools more efficient. For example, he said, lunch lines would be shorter if staff members could use biometrics to verify that a student has sufficient funds or is part of the federal free- or reduced-cost lunch initiative. “The opportunity of biometrics is that a kid can’t lose his thumb, and all we have to do is scan the thumb and it’s already validated,” he said. Smith said that the Williams Unified School District told parents last year in a newsletter that officials were considering the use of fingerprint scanners in lieu of ID cards or money in school cafeterias. Thomas McCraley, the district’s superintendent, told Proper that that one parent complained about the idea, which prompted a letter from the ACLU urging the district not to use biometric information. The district decided against using the fingerprint scanner, he said (also see this HSDW story).