School begins using biometric facial recognition

By Kim Thomas |

“Ainsley. Babcock. Bland. Carthorse. Dint. Ellsworth-Beast Major. Ellsworth-Beast Minor.” For some of us, Rowan Atkinson’s monologue of a schoolmaster taking the register conjures up the essence of school life. Not at St Neots Community College in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, however, where traditional methods are being abandoned in favour of hi-tech facial recognition technology.

The school has 130 sixth-formers, 128 of whom are taking part in a pilot programme 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.

But why? After all, the low-tech method of calling the register has worked very well for generations. 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.

Science lesson

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 doesn’t 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 for school dinners. This rapid growth is down to the efforts of “enterprising small companies”, according to Simon Fance, project officer at the United Kingdom Biometrics Institute.

Because biometrics are a useful way of controlling access, they are being adopted by other organisations, such as nurseries. At UK borders, passport officials are being replaced by cameras that check travellers’ faces against the image held in their passports. One of the concerns for civil liberties campaigners is the blurry line between access control and surveillance: in Newham, east London, face recognition has been used in conjunction with CCTV as a means of identifying criminals in a crowd.

The dystopia envisaged by campaigners is one where the state holds increasing amounts of data on its citizens, which can then be easily matched to unique biometric identifiers. David Clouter, a parent activist from the pressure group Leave Them Kids Alone, regards the use of biometrics in schools as “a disproportionate response to a nonexistent problem” and believes it is a “giant softening-up exercise for the next generation to accept biometric identity in some form”. Children will get so used to offering their fingerprints or staring into a camera that they won’t challenge it when the state asks them to do it: “Every traffic warden, every minor official, will go round fingerprinting everybody. And people won’t see it as out of the ordinary, which it most certainly is.”

Vital statistics

The other issue worrying Clouter is that schools hold large quantities of data on children – not only names, addresses and dates of birth, but information on attendance, library-borrowing habits and attainment, raising the possibility that a single biometric could be used to access huge amounts of personal data held on different systems, including ones held by other authorities: “The more biometric information floating around in insecure places like schools, the more chance there is of it being left on memory sticks or sent somewhere on a CD and lost,” he says.

Carr Archer argues that security concerns are misplaced when it comes to the system used by St Neots. Even if the encryption were to be broken, he says, Aurora’s method of taking measurements is proprietary, so the data couldn’t be used elsewhere (although that could of course change if the Aurora technology becomes widely adopted). Preston is equally confident: “The box is a one-stop shop. There is a network connection that enables you to produce reports, but in terms of getting into the data and misusing it, you’d have to take the box off the wall.”

If the St Neots pilot is successful, Aurora will market it to other schools, though they have yet to decide a pricing model. Currently, the units cost a hefty £4,000 each (though St Neots isn’t being charged anything). In the meantime, schools’ enthusiasm for biometric technologies shows no sign of abating. Clouter and his colleagues can expect to be busy for some time yet.