School begins using biometric facial recognition

Published 6 March 2009

St. Neots Community College in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, has launched a facial recognition technology to identify students and check their attendance

St. Neots Community College in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, has launched a facial recognition technology to identify students and check their attendance. The school has 130 sixth-formers, 128 of whom are taking part in a pilot program that began in January and will run until July. Students register their details by standing in front of a camera, part of a unit that also includes a processor and a keypad. The camera takes a photograph and establishes a “reference point” for the face, which is the mid-point between the eyes. From that, it takes measurements relating to the nose, upper lip and cheeks, and converts those numbers to a unique biometric, which it then encrypts.

When students check in or out of school, they enter a pin on to the keypad and look at the camera. The measurements from the photograph are matched against the student’s biometric identifier, and the time of arrival (or departure) is stored in the unit’s internal computer. The whole process takes less than two seconds. Scott Preston, deputy principal at St. Neots, says the system offers an easy way of gathering accurate data about sixth-form attendance, so students can claim the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) — a government grant for poorer students in post-16 education.

RINF’s Kim Thomas writes that the construction industry has used facial recognition systems for years to prevent employees fraudulently clocking in for colleagues, but the technology has only recently become accurate enough to justify wider use. The key innovation made by Aurora, which supplies the St. Neots system, is the use of infrared light when taking the pictures, which means accuracy is unaffected by lighting conditions. “Because it splashes a consistent light over the face, it doesn’t matter whether it’s pitch black or bright sunlight,” says Hugh Carr Archer, Aurora’s chief executive.

While facial recognition does not yet match the accuracy rates of iris recognition (which has a failure rate of one in several million), Carr Archer believes it does far better than most biometric technologies currently on the market. It makes no difference if the subject is wearing glasses or has grown a beard. He claims the technology can even cope with the changing bone structure of growing children, though this has not yet been fully put to the test.

Biometrics technologies are now widespread in schools: an estimated 1 million children have had their fingerprints taken for activities as mundane as borrowing library books or paying