The New Lunch Money: The Business of Biometrics in Schools

— by Jeff Meredith

It’s becoming much tougher for the class bully to steal your lunch money these days. Thousand of schools in the US now allow students to pay for their meals by simply placing their index finger on a fingerprint scanner: a cashless system. But the growing use of biometrics in cafeterias has many parents and civil libertarians worried about identity theft and violation of children’s privacy. And their voices are being heard as many states are either banning fingerprint scanning in schools or requiring parental consent.

Biometrics, physical or behavioral characteristics of a person that can be measured and used for identification, were once relegated to spy thriller movies and classified government installations. Now they’re being used in schools for a variety of purposes: recording attendance, preventing unauthorized building access, and managing the checkout of library books. But most schools focus upon speeding up lunch lines; the rationale is that students may lose their ID cards or forget PIN numbers and slow down a transaction, but they can’t forget their index finger.

In a typical school implementation, a fingerprint scanner identifies a student and automatically deducts the cost of their meal from an account set up by their parents. Some schools, like the Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, Utah, even allow parents to monitor what their kids are eating and suggest changes to their diet. The hope is that kids will think twice before ordering three slices of pizza and a Snickers bar.

While many tout the convenience of such technology, it certainly has its detractors. The Boulder Valley Public Schools in Boulder, Colorado were set to adopt a fingerprint scanning solution to speed lunch lines, but the plan was nixed in 2007 after parents raised concerns about privacy and identity theft. A high school in Irvine, California also dropped plans to scan 2,200 students. And the Taunton Public Schools – located about 40 miles south of Boston – found out just how serious the opposition is.

In early 2007, Taunton Public Schools superintendent Dr. Arthur Stellar announced a mandatory plan to have students pay for their lunches with a biometric fingerprinting system. School officials argued that it would remove the stigma for poor students who receive free or reduced price lunches. In the past, these students have stood out because they carry special tickets indicating their status; with biometrics, these students can be identified quietly.

However, the plan caused an outcry from parents, who were angry that they were not consulted first. “The superintendent didn’t really send out any notification,” said Patti Crossman, the parent of a 4th grader who would be subject to a pilot program demonstrating the technology. “I went to a school committee meeting, not knowing if other parents were concerned about it, and asked the committee to stop and think about it until we could find out if it was truly safe.”

Crossman went online and discovered a parental movement against fingerprint scanning in schools. She stumbled upon, a site serving as an information source for concerned British parents. “I was talking with people from England almost every day. It started over there. Parents are trying to get it stopped,” said Crossman.

Crossman wasn’t the only one spooked by Taunton’s plans; soon, there were 20 parents voicing their opposition before the school committee. The issue even attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “There are legitimate and serious privacy concerns created by this system,” ACLU Staff Attorney Sarah Wunsch wrote to Stellar on February 25, 2007.

Taunton’s $40,000 investment in a biometric system for six district schools ultimately proved to be a doomed initiative. In April 2007, the Taunton School Committee voted to scrap the system. “A few parents complained to us that they had found out about this only by reading about it in the newspaper,” said Wunsch in a phone interview. “That’s not a good way for a school system to do anything.”

Botched implementations like Taunton’s are beginning to litter the landscape and inspire anti-biometric legislation across the United States. After the Espiritu community schools in Phoenix fingerprinted children without notifying their parents, a bill was introduced in the Arizona State Senate in February 2008 which would prohibit public schools from collecting biometric information from pupils. “When I found out there were schools using biometric identification, without parents’ knowledge, that set off a red flag,” said State Senator Karen Johnson, one of the bill’s sponsors. The bill was approved by the Senate on March 31, but its language has been watered down, substituting a parental consent requirement for an all-out ban. “In order to have their children fingerprinted, parents would have to give a written permission statement to the school,” said Johnson.

To date, three states have enacted laws limiting the collection of biometric information from children. Iowa banned biometrics in schools and Michigan doesn’t allow fingerprinting after a 2000 opinion – delivered by then Attorney General and current Governor Jennifer Granholm – that it would violate state law. In Illinois, parental consent is required before children are scanned and the sale or disclosure of biometric information is prohibited.

That still leaves a sizeable market for biometrics vendors wishing to sell their technology to schools. Food Service Solutions (FSS) was the first company to introduce biometric point of sale systems to school lunch lines, beginning in 2000 with an implementation for the Penn Cambria School District in Cresson, Pennsylvania. Dave Pisanick, Chief Technology Officer for FSS, says the key to the company’s success “is letting the parent know about the system beforehand, educating the parent about what the system does and what it doesn’t do.”

Companies operating in the educational market agree that parents must be engaged from the beginning in order for biometrics to be accepted. And they view mandatory implementations – like Taunton’s — as infeasible, instead favoring “opt-out” plans. Students who opt out do not have to use the technology.

“We encourage schools to not make everyone participate,” says Jay Fry, CEO of identiMetrics, a Malvern, Pennsylvania-based company with a biometric finger scanning platform. “Only a very small percentage – one percent or less – opts out. And generally speaking, those kids opt in later because they see everyone else doing it.”

Companies like Food Service Solutions and identiMetrics will enroll a child in a system by scanning their index finger. The fingerprint image yields unique ridges and arcs. These features are turned into a numerical template representing a child’s fingerprint. Fingerprints are scanned, but the prints themselves are not stored; everything revolves around the numerical template which is generated.

After enrollment, a student will place their finger on a scanner, and there is a live biometric template which is compared against what’s stored in the database. A matching score – or level of confidence – is generated to confirm or deny the identity of a user.

Opponents of the technology worry that the numerical templates, if they fell into the wrong hands, could be deciphered and be used to reproduce a person’s fingerprint. In a world that increasingly uses biometrics, this would be a high tech form of identity theft.

While companies typically encrypt these templates for security purposes, there is growing evidence that unencrypted templates – or even temporarily decrypted ones – could be used to recreate a digital fingerprint image. In an April 2007 paper for IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, researchers challenged the assumption that templates do not reveal information about the original fingerprint. “Even if it’s only decrypted for a brief moment, that template is vulnerable and susceptible to reconstruction,” said Arun Ross, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science & Electrical Engineering at West Virginia University who co-authored the paper. Ross’ work is not without precedent; even the US government’s National Science & Technology Council concedes that “there have been studies where pseudo-fingerprint images have been reconstructed from the fingerprint template.”

Once a fingerprint image has been reconstructed digitally, it could be transferred to a “physical artifact mimicking a finger,” says Ross. Called a “gummy finger,” this device could have the same groove and ridge patterns as your fingerprint and potentially defeat a biometric system by pretending to be you.

identiMetrics’ Fry wonders why a person would even bother to go to such lengths when a fingerprint can easily be swiped from a doorknob you just touched. He scoffs at the notion that fingerprints could be stolen from these systems. “By the time you’ve figured out the encryption and digitization and a series of points that are like a connect the dot game … you really can’t extrapolate a fingerprint from that information,” says Fry. “It’s a matter of transcending the illogic of science fiction.”

The biometrics industry argues that the templates, stored in heavily encrypted databases, would be meaningless in someone else’s hands. “There’s no way for somebody to go in and take our fingerprint templates and recreate a fingerprint image from that,” says Pisanick of FSS. Even if a fingerprint image were to be recreated and applied to a gummy finger, Ross concedes that technological improvements – cutting edge sensors that can detect blood flow or perspiration to confirm that a print comes from a human being – could help the industry defend against spoofing. “Those sensors can detect lifeless objects,” said Ross. “They cannot be defeated easily.”

Parents like Crossman remain unconvinced and distrust biometrics vendors. “This is their business and they want people to buy it. They give you the answers you want to hear,” says Crossman. “They say ‘No one can get in there.’ That means it’s in there somewhere and I’m not comfortable with that.”

Yet some school systems have dealt with little parental opposition. The Wetzel County Schools of West Virginia sent a letter to parents before installing a biometric system in a high school of 500 students; parents could send in a note if they didn’t want their child scanned, but few opted to do so. “There may have been four to five percent that said they initially didn’t want the scan,” said Linda Barth, School Level Secretary for the Wetzel County Schools. “And at least half of them changed their mind once we started with the process.”

Even though she introduced a bill which would eliminate scanning in schools, Johnson is ambivalent. “I prefer to not have any biometric identification done with children. Fingerprints are forever – to have somebody get a hold of them is not a good thing,” she says. “At the same time, I also do believe in parental choice.”

Posted by Joseph, under  |  Date: April 26, 2008
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