Schools are scanning fingerprints and this Mumsnet user isn't happy

This week, a concerned parent has taken to the popular forum Mumsnet to ask fellow users how they feel about their children being scanned. In the post, the Mum of two wrote:

“Currently, the school has a system of using key cards in order to get into the buildings and to buy lunch... The school wants to move to a fingerprint recognition system from September... Apparently, the actual fingerprint image won't be stored, but instead an algorithm based on unique points which have been taken from the image of the fingerprint.

I can't quite say why I am uncomfortable with this but I am... am I being unreasonable to refuse to allow it?"

All over the world, schools are opting to use biometric fingerprint scanning in order to allow kids to securely enter school campuses, buildings, and even to get their school lunches. However, there is growing alarm amongst parents that those scans may be a cause for concern. 

The constant onslaught of media coverage of Facebook scandals, hacking events, and the spread of facial recognition technology in public places is causing people to realize that data privacy will impact future generations. This is making some parents wonder what exactly the repercussions of allowing biometric scans in schools could be.

Back on Mumsnet, this doesn't appear to be the case, as other parents rushed to tell the original poster that they have nothing to worry about. SylviaAndSydney was quick to reply that her “daughter has used it for the last four years of high school” and she believes “it's a good idea.” Another Mumsnet user called FelicityBeedle concurs, commented that:

“It’s not a new system at all, I used it in secondary school over a decade ago. It’s absolutely fine, as you’ve already said they aren’t storing fingerprints so I’m struggling a little to see why you’re so worried.”

In fact, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the majority of Mumsnet users have no problem with this kind of biometric scanning in schools. A user called familycourtq states that:

“you are not being unreasonable but majority opinion on Mumsnet is that you should hand over anything anyone in authority asks for at all times.”

Digital Fingerprints

As was the case with the comment made by FelicityBeedle, it would appear that the prime reason that parents seem to believe handing over biometric data is absolutely secure, is that the school is not actually storing the fingerprint itself.

However, when a pupil places his or her finger on a scanner in order to register their fingerprint within the system - this process converts that biometric input into a digital representation of the fingerprint. That unique numerical code is a direct likeness of the fingerprint itself and is best described as a digital copy of the body part itself.

What is concerning, is that because fingerprints never change, this code can be used at any point in the future to authenticate the child - even long after they leave school and are well into adulthood. 

What’s more, because the fingerprint is likely to be held alongside other valuable data such as a name, date of birth, and perhaps a photo - if that data is hacked by cybercriminals, or is passed directly to a third party or affiliate by the company that installs the biometrics system - the danger is that this digital version of the child’s fingerprint could be used for potentially malicious purposes. 

So far, fingerprint scanners have been the most popular choice of biometric authentication rolled out in schools. However, there is talk of introducing iris scanning and even facial recognition in school. As is the case with fingerprint scans these create complex digital representations of those features that are unique and can be scanned time and time again, in different locations and for different purposes.

The idea that parents are permitting their children to hand over this data, without being expressly informed about how this code can be scanned elsewhere is extremely concerning. Especially considering that it would appear that parents are not asking questions about the privacy policies attached to these systems and the firms that install the technology.

In cases where this technology might have been installed directly by government agencies, the very real danger exists that this data could be used for tracking and surveillance long into the future, meaning that this data could be used to curtail their child’s future freedoms in a way that is reminiscent of an episode of Black Mirror. 

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. Ray is currently rated #4 VPN and #3 internet privacy authority by Agilience.com.

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