Don’t sleepwalk into Big Brother surveillance, schools warned


Schools which employ biometric technologies such as fingerprint patterning to manage libraries or dinner queues should put surveillance and privacy issues on the curriculum, according to university experts.

An analysis submitted by Strathclyde University to a Scottish Government consultation warns that schools should not “uncritically” accept bio- metric identification systems or other surveillance systems.

The authors claim it is not realistic or desirable to halt the development of such technologies.

With society moving towards the use of iris scanning and facial recognition at airports and biometric passports and possible ID cards, pupils need to be prepared for the world we live in.On the other hand, potential security benefits may mean schools could be seen as irresponsible if they don’t adopt such systems, they add.

However, the report concludes: “Schools must prepare pupils for life in the newly emergent surveillance society’, not by uncritically habituating them to surveillance systems used in schools, but by critically engaging them in thought about the way surveillance technologies work in the wider world and the implications of being a surveilled subject’.”

The report is also cautious about the potential response of children to the new technologies and argues schools should be careful, as pupils are likely to regard biometric technologies as “cool” and futuristic and to be uncritically enthusiastic about them.

The idea that schools should engage pupils with the realities and prospects of a surveillance society, the document says, is “premised on a belief that through informed understanding the worst excesses of the over-surveilled, over-controlled society may yet be avoided”.

However, it is not just pupils who appear to be embracing the technology. Companies which provide biometric “solutions” for schools say that 99% of parents back the technology when it is introduced.

Schools spoken to by The Herald bear this out. Renfrewshire Council has installed finger scanners in 12 primary schools after a pilot scheme at Paisley’s Todholm Primary School was judged a success. The headteacher at one, Moorpark Primary in Renfrew, says only three pupils out of a school roll of 127 have opted out – and they are all from the same family.

“I don’t think it’s because of Big Brother’ type fears, but their mum just felt they were too small to be putting their fingers on a scanner,” head Frances Boyd explains.

The Renfrewshire schools are using the system to manage mealtimes, with pupils or parents putting credit in the system which children can then access to pay for their dinner, verifying their identity by scanning their index finger.

The local authority says schools do not keep an image of any pupil’s fingerprint, with a set of points on the finger being used to generate a unique number against which subsequent scans are checked. Along with the system’s manufacturers, they claim it is impossible to “reverse engineer” a print or set of prints from the numbers on the system.

Boyd also cites anonymity as one of the benefits: “We are a school where 30% of pupils have free meals. But with this system no-one knows who those children are – which takes away the stigma.”

Boyd said there used to be a definite stigma attached to school meal tickets, and some secondary pupils would rather not take up school meals than be singled out in this way.

Pupil take-up has been enthusiastic, she says, but there has been no formal attempt to discuss issues such as civil liberties with them. “Work like that would come in through personal and social development lessons. We work on the belief that if children ask a question we will answer it,” she said.

Graham Herbert is headteacher at Lockerbie Academy, where school library cards have been replaced by a finger scan for three years now. He cites an uptake rate of 95% from parents.

“Those whose parents don’t consent can still borrow books in the conventional way,” he adds. “Kids in the main enjoy using it. It is technology and they are growing up in a world where it will be increasingly familiar in airports and banks, for example. Those I’ve spoken to don’t accept the civil liberties argument at all.”

The system has resulted in savings, Herbert claims, particularly through eliminating the problem of lost cards and the costs of replacing them. It has also led to improved rates of book borrowing, particularly amongst boys.

Responding to the Strathclyde University paper, he said: “Whether they debate it in modern studies subjects, I don’t know. I can see where the civil liberties argument comes in with ID cards, but not with this particular system.”

He added that it was important to stress that the system is not fingerprinting in the traditional sense. “People associate that with prison and permanent records, and that can cause an emotional reaction, but that is from people who haven’t found out how the system actually works.”

“Staff use the system too and I haven’t had any teachers approaching me and saying this is an infringement. To me it is no different from showing your passport in an airport.”

Teaching unions have objected, however, and the EIS warned in responding to the government consultation that the issue could turn schools into a civil liberties battleground.

Meanwhile, Geraint Bevan, of No2ID Scotland, the anti-ID card campaign, says there are issues which schools simply haven’t thought through. He added that he didn’t believe the introduction and upkeep of complex computer system would be outweighed by the cost of replacing library cards in the past. “These systems are a waste of money and there are big security issues. It is a fingerprint system, and it is not true to say that you cannot reverse engineer finger-prints from these algorithms.”

“Schools and local authorities should consider what happens if the police want to access their records because a serious crime has been committed. Would they say no, and can they legally? If not, they should be raising that with parents right from the start.”

He said of Strathclyde University’s idea that surveillance should be on the curriculum to help pupils engage with the issue: “That is the best idea I have heard in years. It really does raise important issues that children are going to have to deal with in their future lives.

“They would then be in a much better position to give informed consent, rather than just say: this is a cool toy’. I’d be very interested to see how kids views changed as a result.”

Professor Mike Nellis, one of the authors of the Strathclyde paper said: “Our view was that you can’t just stop this technology being used in schools. But if it is going to happen we said you have to not just have consultations. You have to actually turn it into a topic on the curriculum and talk through thoroughly the technology, privacy and civil liberties issues.”

Prof Nellis is currently working on a project entitled Surveillance and Society in the 21st Century, which will include a particular focus on schools. He argues that discussion of surveillance in schools should also encompass non-biometric measures such as CCTV. The topic will be explored through lectures aimed at secondary pupils, an exhibition at the Glasgow Science Centre and a surveillance symposium in spring and summer this year.

Biometric testing: the way forward?

The Scottish Government has published draft guidelines for local authorities on introducing biometric technologies.
The move comes after schools in Dumfries and Galloway and Renfrewshire installed fingerprint scanning systems for pupils to identify themselves when borrowing books or accessing dinner money.
It isn’t clear how widespread the technology is in Scotland, but it is clearly less advanced than in England, where thousands of children use fingerprint scanners in libraries.
Examples of biometric systems cited by technology firms include finger scans, vein recognition, facial biometrics, gait analysis and speech recognition.
They argue that such systems can improve school security and are easier and more reliable, eliminating the problems caused by lost library cards, dropped dinner money and forgotten passwords.
Civil liberties campaigners suggest the technologies tend to be unnecessary and are part of a creeping surveillance society.
Not all such developments involve biometrics. Two years ago a Doncaster secondary began experimenting with “smart threads” containing radio- frequency ID (RFID) tags embroidered into uniforms. These were used to track pupils as they move around the school.