Elementary school children in Ohio County Schools (OCS) came home last week (less than a week before summer vacation) with a memo to parents from OCS's Office of Child Nutrition stating that OCS "will be implementing a new system that provides increased security for students' child nutrition accounts." This system is biometric identification provided by identiMetrics, a privately-held company from Malvern, PA.
"Biometric identification," the memo states "automates identifying a person based upon physical characteristics: therefore, one student cannot utilize another child's identification card to access his/her lunch account." To translate, this system will use each child's fingerprint to identify him or her in order to "eliminate the ability of others to utilize a student's lunch account without the student's knowledge, reduce clerical errors, and increase the rate of processing lunch purchases."
It goes on to assure parents that the new system "does not store a copy of the fingerprints," but rather "creates a template of the unique fingerprint characteristics and assigns a numerical identification." So, fingerprints are not stored in the system, but each child's "unique fingerprint characteristics" are assigned a number? How is that different? I'm guessing that the assigned number is associated with the child's name, right? How else can these accounts be tracked?
And why is this new system even necessary? Has there been a rash of grade-school students using other students' lunch accounts without permission? Was there a mob of angry parents demanding some redress to this problem? If so, how did I miss it? Assuming that this new system brings some positive effects on efficiency for the school, any claim of "increased security" for students, to me, is dubious.
So, how much is this going to cost? An April 26, 2008 article by Jeff Meridith on www.sciencemetropolis.com (www.sciencemetropolis.com/contributions/the-new-lunch-money-the-business-of-biometrics-in-schools/) cites a cost of $40,000 for a school system with six district schools. That's pretty cheap. Certainly much cheaper than adding additional staff, which, I'm sure, is quite attractive to administrators looking to control costs and increase efficiency.
But what else is cooked into this deal with identiMetrics? After all, the term "metrics" is commonly associated (especially in the corporate world) with the measuring, tracking and analysis of information.
The memo states that each student's biometric information will be stored in the school's database "with the same high level of security as all students' records," which begs the question: What does that mean? To add to my insecurity, a quick Google search revealed that the phrase "with the same high level of security as all students' records" comes verbatim from a sample letter included in identiMetrics' "Finger Scanning Reference Kit," which is provided to schools in order to "make the whole process (of implementing the system) run smoothly and easily"! Wow.
So, was OCS unwittingly sold a system that will share our kids' biometric data with identiMetrics, who may then sell that information to any third party? How would we ever know if it was shared? I imagine that the eating habits of particular samples of children (by, for example, grade, age and income) would be valuable information for those looking to sell products to them or to regulate their behavior. Such behavioral data on groups of kids would make B.F. Skinner green with envy!
And, where does it end? I'm sure that there are other school services that can also be improved by this technology, such as: accessing school buildings; tracking attendance; checking out library books, going to the nurse's office; getting on the bus; using the Internet, and hall monitoring. Well, some of these uses are specifically suggested by identiMetrics in their 2009 paper entitled "Biometric Student Identification: Practical Solutions for Accountability & Security in Schools," which is available online at www.identimetrics.net/articles/Practical_Stu_ID_for_schools.pdf. Once the lunch system is in place, you can bet that identiMetrics will push to spread its product into other areas of our schools. What kind of information will that yield?
So, let's assume that OCS's claims are correct: using biometrics will greatly improve security and clerical errors and make lunch lines move more quickly in our schools. Our kids' information is safe, and my time taken to write this letter was completely wasted. My biggest concern, which I haven't addressed yet, is that the implementation of this system (and the memo clearly states that OCS "will be implementing" it) will, no doubt, teach our young, impressionable children that it's OK to casually give up their biometric data for the sake of convenience. Who (or what) is going to ask for it next?
E. W. Foster