Schools Embrace Fingerprint Scanning
By Pauline Vu, Staff Writer
The lunch lines in West Virginia's Wood County schools move much faster than they used to. After students fill their trays with food, they approach a small machine, push their thumbs against a touch pad - and with that small movement, they've paid for their meal.
For half the state's school districts, as well as hundreds more across the country, the days of dealing with lost lunch cards or forgotten identification numbers are over.
"A student cannot forget their finger," said Beverly Blough, the director of food service in Wood County School District, which in 2003 became the first district in West Virginia to use finger scanners.
But the emergence of finger scanning has also sparked a backlash from parents and civil libertarians worried about identity theft and violation of children's privacy rights. In several cases when parents have objected, school districts have backed down, and some states have outlawed or limited the technology.
A growing number of schools are using biometrics, or the science of identification based on physiological or behavioral features like facial or voice recognition, to have students pay for meals, log their attendance, board buses, check out books and visit the nurse's office. Administrators cite many benefits, chief among them efficiency.
Fingerprints are scanned, but the prints themselves are not saved; instead, a finger's ridges and arcs are turned into "data points," which are converted into a numerical identifier assigned to each student.
Pennsylvania-based identiMetrics, which offers biometric identification products, has sold fingerprint scanners to about 1,000 school districts in about half the states, mostly in the Northeast and South, said Anne Marie Dunphy, the company's chief financial officer. By the end of the fiscal year, she expects the business will triple or quadruple over the previous year.
Dunphy said rural districts seem to be taking the lead on implementing the technology. "You would think that it would be the technology-rich, wealthy districts along the Northwest corridor, and it's the complete opposite. We have installations in very rural areas in Indiana, where the backyard's a cornfield and there's an Amish lady working the cash register," she said.
But the technology's emergence has raised concerns for parents about whether their children's information is safe.
"It just opens a huge database out there that's just easy for identity theft," said Joy Robinson-Van Gilder, an Illinois mother who rallied legislators last year to place limits on the technology in her state. "I think it's against their civil rights, without a doubt, and it is an invasion of privacy."
Illinois is the only state that requires schools to get parental permission before scanning students' fingerprints. Iowa banned biometrics outright in schools, and Michigan doesn't allow fingerprinting because of a 2000 attorney general opinion that it would violate state law.
Arizona could join this group. Last month, a Senate committee passed a bill to ban the use of biometrics in schools.
Scanning opponents argue that districts don't have policies in place for what information to collect, how long to keep it, how to delete it when it's no longer needed and who should have access to the information. They also say that schools, unlike banks or major government agencies that also collect biometric data, don't have the financial resources to ensure that it is secure.
"The benefits certainly do not justify the privacy violations that we're seeing," said Alessandra Meetze, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I don't think collecting fingerprints from very little kids sends the right message…They're essentially treating (students) like criminals for the sake of efficiency."
But supporters of biometrics argue that privacy and identity theft concerns are unfounded, because the prints aren't saved and cannot be reconstructed based on the data points that are recorded. If a child went missing and the FBI needed fingerprints, the information recorded by the lunch scanners would not be enough to re-create the print, Dunphy said.
School administrators say the technology makes it easier for schools to keep track of spending on lunches, especially free and reduced-price lunches, for which schools are reimbursed by the federal government.
West Virginia's Blough said that with the pressures of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that mandates annual improvement on standardized tests, her goal in setting up a biometrics system was "to reduce the annoyances that would take the principal and staff away from education and focusing on things that were relatively minor in a student's day."
Blough said the cost of the scanners, about $700 each, matches the amount she had been spending on lunch cards and printing, and the process of recording meals, which at times was inaccurate.
Some of biometrics' other benefits: parents can look online to see what their children are eating, schools can track student allergies and students who are receiving free and reduced-price lunches can avoid the stigma of having to show different-colored lunch cards that are used by some districts.
This year, Iowa, which banned biometrics in 2005, has a bill introduced that would allow schools to use the technology again.
"I'm not so sure anybody really understood what they were doing" then, said Jeff Berger, the legislative liaison of the Iowa Department of Education, which proposed the bill. When more information emerged later about biometrics, he said, "the general consensus was, 'We wish we had known this when we did it.'"
The main ingredient to a successful biometrics system may be to get parents on board early. Laws banning biometrics in Iowa and Illinois schools and Arizona's current bill were the result of parental fury after the fact.
"My advice to the district is, make sure you communicate very well to the parents before you implement it," said Tom Johansen, the marketing director for eTritionWare, another biometrics company. "Parents should not find out from their young child."