TrendMore schools turn to biometrics

Published 5 February 2008

Many parents object to their children being fingeprinted in school — the fingerprints are used to identify students in the cafeteria, library, and even to take attendance in class — and there is the question of cost, but school administrators see many benefits in installing biometric systems

We have written several stories about the growing use of fingerprinting in schools, and it appears that here we have a case where for every step back, there are two steps forward (although the definition of backward and forward depends on one’s point of view). In any event, electronic finger scans could replace lunch money, ID cards and even attendance sheets in schools across the country. Officials at Broome-Tioga BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) are interested in having school districts explore the use of biometric technology in their schools, said Kathy Alley, computer services coordinator for Broome-Tioga BOCES. Biometric technology uses an input sample, such as a fingerprint or an eye scan, to identify a specific person, much like swiping an ID card. Schools would most likely use fingerprint scans. Alley envisions a school district where fingerprint scanners are in cafeterias, building entrances, classrooms and buses. Children would use their fingers to pay for lunch. They would scan in at the beginning of every class, in lieu of a teacher spending time taking attendance. They would scan when they got on and off the bus, so school officials could pinpoint where a missing student went missing. Teachers would not have to waste classroom time taking attendance. If a child disappeared, school officials would know the last class he was in, or at what time he got off the bus. Only authorized faculty would be allowed to enter the school building. Scans would eliminate human error and speed up lunch lines, Alley said.

The problem with the system is that it is hard to sell to parents, Alley said (see 29 January 2008 HSDW story about an Arizona school district cancelling fingerprinting scheme). Some administrators that she talked to were interested, but feared an uproar from parents, she said. “It’s kind of hard to get anybody to move forward,” she said. Fingerprint scans have been popping up in schools across the country, often incurring the wrath of some parents. An Internet search of the terms “biometrics” and “schools” turns up a number of blogs written by parents who are against biometrics, fearing the government would hoard thousands of fingerprints in an Orwellian database. Biometrics companies insist that the fingerprint scans are not actual fingerprints, only a digital representation that is not identifiable outside of the system. Michigan and Iowa have passed laws virtually banning schools from taking electronic scans from students. A lawmaker in Arizona announced last month she was drafting legislation that would require parental permission or ban biometric technology from schools altogether.

Alley could not provide the total cost for a district to implement a biometrics system. She said the fingerprint scanners cost about $400 to $500. A district also would have to purchase software and, if it planned to equip buses with the technology, tablet PCs. Some of the cost of the system could be offset by the state if purchased by BOCES, Alley said.

Worldwide, biometrics — including fingerprint, face, and iris scans — are a $3 billion-a-year business, according to the International Biometric Group. The group predicts biometric revenue will top $7 billion by 2012, thanks in part to government identity programs. The technology probably won’t be widespread in local schools for years, Alley said. “I do think (biometrics are) the future,” Alley said. “We have to wait a while for parents to embrace it.”