Parents have been told their concerns about privacy are ‘unwarranted’ after being advised children as young as five will have their fingerprints scanned at school as part of a controversial new biometric student attendance record-keeping program being introduced across Australia.
The system, an adaptation of previous programs that were suspended by the government due to privacy concerns, will allow students to register they are at school by placing their finger on a pad.
Parents from East Para Primary School in South Australia, the latest educational institution to adapt the new technology, have told the Adelaide Advertiser of a briefing by electronic newsletter informing them of the fingerprint scanning system.
The program is the latest in a controversial history of attempts to implement biometric technology in Australian schools and has left privacy advocates outraged, citing increasing concerns with the unfettered use of biometrics for identification.
Biometric technologies have existed for decades. Biometric systems enable unique behavioural or physiological attributes of people to be used for identification and authentication.
Major biometric technologies include finger scanning, facial recognition, iris and retinal scanning, finger geometry, voice recognition and dynamic signature verification. Other biometric technologies include ear geometry, body odour measurement, keystroke dynamics and gait recognition.
In a typical biometric system, a biometric device, such as a finger scanner, is used to take a biometric sample from an individual. Data from the sample are then analysed and converted into a biometric template, which is stored in a database or an object in the individual’s possession, such as a smart card.
Four years ago, Victory Lutheran College located in Victoria, began scanning students’ fingers to track student attendance. The state’s then-privacy commissioner, Helen Versey, said the use of biometrics raised “significant issues” regarding the security of any database containing that data.
A subsequent backlash from parents who hadn’t been informed of the new procedures led to the attendance-tracking software being suspended.
Similar programs, much like the one at East Para Primary School, have since developed over the years and are now promoted as a cost-effective alternative to data collection.
School mother Sandra Tomasin said she was disgusted by the move and immediately rang the school to ask that her Year 1 son be exempt from the program:
“They have told me that I have no choice.”
“It is an invasion of privacy. I don’t want to let it happen but I want to keep him at the school.’’
The counter-arguments behind the Victory Lutheran College debate are critical to understanding how and why a newly developed system – one presented as ‘subtle’ and ‘progressive’ – could potentially lead to an unjustified invasion of personal privacy.
The first concern associated with the use of biometric systems in schools is that they will enable extensive monitoring of the activities of individuals. This is so particularly if the same form of biometric information is used to identify individuals in several different contexts—that is, if a type of biometric information is used as a unique multi-purpose identifier.
Secondly, there is a concern that biometric technologies, such as facial recognition technologies, may be used to identify individuals without their knowledge or consent.
There is a concern that biometric information could reveal sensitive personal information, such as information about a person’s health or religious beliefs. Furthermore, there is concern that the security of biometric systems could be compromised and that biometric information stored in a central or local database, or on an object in the possession of an individual, could be acquired by those wishing to use it for gain.
Finally, the accuracy and reliability of many biometric systems are still unknown, causing some to express concern about the potentially serious consequences for an individual who is falsely accepted or rejected by a biometric system.
Ms Tomasin said regardless of whether fingerprints were stored by the system, primary school children having to scan their fingers when they came and went to school was outrageous.
“The picture I have in my head is these little kids getting finger printed and lining up like they are prisoners in a jail to be scanned into class.”
“What is wrong with the old way of doing a roll call?”
‘IT DOESN’T BREACH PRIVACY’ – SCHOOL ASSOCIATION
In response to the public concerns, parents at East Para Primary School have been told their questions about privacy of children is “unwarranted”, as the program does not store fingerprints but instead “creates a template of the unique fingerprint characteristics”.
Association of Independent Schools of SA chief executive Carolyn Grantskalns has also dismissed any concerns over privacy in a statement:
“It doesn’t breach anyone’s privacy because all it is doing is confirming you are where you are supposed to be, and makes it impossible for anyone to check in as you if they aren’t you.”
An Education Department spokesman said the finger scan technology would help accurately track attendance.
“East Para Primary believes the move will encourage students to arrive on time and help staff ensure children who are collected from school early are gathered by the proper guardian”.
The school also plans to use the program for parents, visitors and volunteers.