Monday, September 13, 2010

The Big Brother State Enters Schools

I really thought I had heard it all, but when I was told by a reader last week that my old school was fingerprinting all its pupils I thought I was being sold a pup of a story. No, the reader said, it is completely true. Well, today I finally got the evidence. Saffron Walden County High School is introducing a payment system for school dinners whereby instead of paying with cash, pupils just put their fingers on a reader and money is then debited from an account into which their parents have paid in money online.

The letter sent out by the school "Business Manager" (we didn't have one of those in my day!) is careful to reassure parents that the fingerprint data is totally safe and once a mathematical code is taken from the fingerprints they will be disposed of. Hmmm, we've heard that sort of thing before, haven't we?

Fingerprinting children is just plain wrong. Sorry, but it just is. No matter how many assurances that are given, you're still trusting the state to look after the most personal of information.
I understand that many parents are outraged at this, but no doubt most will fall in line and give their agreement. Having said that, the school is running an 'opt out' rather than 'opt in'.
I am not a parent, but if I were I would have severe reservations about agreeing to let my child have his or her fingerprints taken, no matter how innocent the reasons may appear.


Roger Thornhill said...

I agree with you except for one detail - the use of the word "enters" in the title.

He has been in residence for years.

Steve C said...

There are two possible reactions:
1) well done the school for being forward thinking, using new technology to make their admin more efficient or
2) Hang-on, this is a population finger-print database by the back-door. I bet the security services can insist on the fingerprints being handed over for crime/terrorism reasons and once the State have them they will use them as they wish.

The choice is yours!

Unsworth said...

Yes, absolutely bleeding outrageous. Where are the Governors in this? They should be dragging the Head over red-hot coals for allowing this to happen - and I speak as a very (far too) long-serving Governor, Chair of Governors of Primary and Secondary schools.

All this bollocks is imposed in the name of 'efficiency' or some other damn-fool excuse. But you can be sure that no one will take responsibility if this highly personal information somehow falls into the wrong hands. What guarantees is this school offering as to safety and security?

If, as you say, parents are outraged then they should be taking this matter up in a very big way. It'll do no harm - and may do a great deal of good. They should write to the Chair of Governors, copy the local authority, the Secretary of State and their local MP demanding immediate withdrawal of this arbitrary and unilateral imposition of a direct infringement of their children's Human Rights.

Tapestry said...

From birth, the district nurse enters your home, and describes your environment online into a secret database, including names of family pets, estimated family income, where it is being spent, and any tendency to drink to excess by parents and other adults, etc.

Reports on character are collected from schools to the same central database.

This is a police state we live in, where the state takes 25,000 children away from their parents each year through secret family court hearings, the vast majority of the kids would prefer not to be taken.

Often they end up enduring serious abuse at the hands of state bureaucracy.

Some people try to hit back - the only way they know how - the likes of Raoul Moat, who was only in trouble with the law for resisting the removal of his kids by the police. The rest of us meekly comply, and endure the growing power of the state.

I don't approve of maiming and killing, but the taking of kids in a way that is seen as unjustified would make many people flip.

The State is not only indefensibly expensive. It is also the enemy of the people.

Thorpe said...

The statement that the algorithms cannot be reverse-compiled to finger print images is worthy of challenge.

There are half a dozen commercially available packages on the market that will turn a fingerprint image into an algorithm. All of them - without exception - can reverse compile an image if the master key is used. Master keys are not part of the software delivered to end users (in this case the school or whomever they have contracted for the job), but the statement "(the numbers)...cannot be reinterpreted back into a fingerprint image" is demonstrably false, unless the school has chosen to develop the software and algorithms to do it themselves rather than buy in a commercial solution.

That said, the chances of someone obtaining the master keys for nefarious purposes are probably vanishingly small, and the overall benefit is probably (IMO) in favour of something like this system. Children are often targeted for their dinner money by bullies. The local primary school tried a cash card type of system that relied on parents topping up an e-card at the School Office, but it did not work. Children lost cards, or had them stolen, or many parents seemingly could not be bothered to walk the 15 yards from playground to the School Office to top-up midterm, leaving children with "no credit" in the queue for lunch.

BrendaC said...

Iain, you have jumped the gun on this one.

Im a teacher in a inner city School and we introduced this system 3 yrs ago.

The main reason? To stop the stigma of being on "Free dinners" that flashing a card to the dinner server always brings

This way noone is none the wiser as to who is on free dinners

I assume there will be some children on Free dinners in Saffron Walden!

Understand the civil lib concerns, but pales into insignificance when put alongside the houding of children from poor families

apricotfox said...

This regime has been in place at my son's Grammar school for a year. I was horrified but have to say that it has been a boon at a practical level as don't have to be sorted with cash for lunch all the time. I had assumed the data would be destroyed on leaving school but I will now check that that is the fact, your posting has made me feel that I have been slack-slapdash Mummy....

Anonymous said...

Hello Iain I am afraid, you have got it wrong. They do NOT take your fingerprints. They take a look at your fingerprints and produce a unique identifier. From this identifier your fingerprints cannot be reconstructed.

The identifier allows the child to obtain things books, food etc that cannot be allocated to that child. It is also something that cannot be lost. So calm down it is a very good idea.

PoliticalHackUK said...

Turn off your PCs lest GCHQ track your IP log, tear up your credit cards and store cards to stop banks and credit agencies knowing what you buy, switch off your phone so you can't be tracked...

Or just get a life. My daughter's school has had fingerprint ID for payment for years and it means that she can pay for lunch without having to keep track of cash or an easily-lost swipe card. It was a local decision made by the school and the governors and I thought that localism was the order of the day. It isn't a secret government plot, it just makes life easier.

cynicalHighlander said...

Its to identify the Taliban sympathisers on the ficticous war against terrrorism, welcome to the totalitarian state we live in by our imperial rulers. We better hope they are not using HRMC computer system as the the culling will be more extreme with no time to pay.

Nigel said...

Sorry, Iain, but this is alarmist bollocks.

Schools hold far more sensitive data on our children than the few bits of data derived from fingerprints that you are talking about here. And the systems which hold this biometric data are almost certainly fat more secure than the rest of the school records relating to pupils.

To believe that this data will be available to government requires a degree of paranoia (and a lack of fact checking) which I do not normally associate with you.

This really is not in any way 'population fingerprinting by the back door'.

Captain Ranty said...

"Fingerprinting children is just plain wrong."

Let's not restrict ourselves here.

Fingerprinting anyone who hasn't committed a crime is unlawful. End of story.

Brenda, if you are a teacher, I am Pope Benedict.

And if you are, with that spelling, that syntax, that sentence construction, and that attitude, God help us all.

Civil liberties are paramount. They are above every "hurt feeling" you can dig out.

This is why our nation is buggered.

We have people like you giving away rights so that some poor kid doesn't have to blush at lunchtime.

I can live with blushing children.

I can't, and won't, live in a country that will take my rights to save a little embarrassment.


Martin Curtis said...


As you can tell this isn't new. It is old hat in schools and is done to make life easier for the school and students and with none of the wider impacts.

Oh - and your school may not have had a business manager - but it had a bursar - same thing.

Unknown said...

It's not just the finger-print information. This system also requires all details of your child's daily food purchases to be shared with the third party company who operate the scheme.

In future all school purchases will be handled through the same system, including trips, music lessons etc etc

At our school, concerned parents have started asking about opt-outs, but there is very little information available. Meanwhile the school started collecting finger-prints before the permission forms had been returned.

Scary Biscuits said...

Luddite, Iain. Just because the government abuses your fingerprint for ID cards, it doesn't follow that every application of biometrics is evil.

The system is voluntary and avoids stigma for poorer children. The fingerprint image stored is very different from the type used by the police. Only a subset of the data represented by your fingerprint is stored. Therefore it can never be fully recovered. Whilst you might theoretically decompile the fingerprint to reproduce a facsimilie of your original it will never be that good or represent much more than a guess, as many fingerprints could produce the same stored number. Commercial fingerprint readers usually work on a claimed false acceptance ratio of 1:100,000 but deliver under 1:10,000 in practice, due to measurment variability. This is nowhere near good enough to be used in court or for identity theft. Parents at the school can sleep safely.

Unknown said...

The real threat posed by schemes like this is the acclimation of youth to control by biometric id.

It is That Hideous Strength we should fear.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cynicalHighlander said...

#Nigel sleepwalk if you want to but some politicians are corrupt as are governments.

LazyChicken said...

This happened in my children's school over a year ago. We opted out and it hasn't caused any problems for the kids.

It is only a matter of time before there is a huge data loss....

Dick Puddlecote said...

Brenda: "The main reason? To stop the stigma of being on "Free dinners" that flashing a card to the dinner server always brings"

If the fingerprint produces a numeric ID, why not teach the kids to remember a number? Too difficult for teachers these days?

"Understand the civil lib concerns, but pales into insignificance when put alongside the houding of children from poor families"

Nothing pales into insignificance when compared with, as Brian says, the acclimatisation of youngsters to being surreptitiously tagged.

And, yet again, it's 'opt-out' rather than 'opt-in'.

Brenda, are you seriously saying that the ONLY way of hiding the fact that kids are given free dinners is by fingerprinting EVERY kid in the school? You're a teacher yet you have no imagination further than that?

God help the kids.

Unknown said...

Fingerprints ?
You have not seen anything yet.

My cat has one of these.
Of course the article above relates to a human microchip implant containing medical data.
Well medical data only for now anyway.
It would also be possible to track a persons whereabouts anywhere on the planet if tied into GPS.

JMB said...

"Hello Iain I am afraid, you have got it wrong. They do NOT take your fingerprints. They take a look at your fingerprints and produce a unique identifier. From this identifier your fingerprints cannot be reconstructed."

But isn't that what the police do for the initial searches? They only look at the actual prints when they get a close match.

I can imagine that if there is a theft at the school then the police will want to access the school's fingerprint records and once they have it then it will be stored away like all the other fingerprints and DNA they get from innocent people.

How long before a chip is embedded in newly born babies like is done with dogs?

Jimmy said...

"No matter how many assurances that are given, you're still trusting the state to look after the most personal of information."

Presumably you and your contributors refuse to visit the United States?

Get a grip.

Anonymous said...

Any schoolteacher or assistant that cannot recognise a child is in the wrong job.
The best Headmaster I had told me that no school should be so large that the Headmaster did not know each of his pupils and retain in his head their academic and behavioral records
Everyone who thinks that this is a technical question about using fingerprints as an identifier is off-beam - it is debasing teachers, children and lunch ladies to the level of automatons

Tapestry said...

Meet the State - Blair explains how he wants lots of kids removed from their parents. Children are in their sights.

Mick Turatian said...

A teacher,BrendaC, writes:

This way noone is none the wiser...

saints preserve us.

Ed said...

Big Brother? What about interfering nosey parents?!

This system allows parents and guardians to view every item their child purchases, down to the last chip.

I thought school was all about gaining independence, taking personal responsibility, growing up?

If my children felt that I could see every item they purchase I would have a rebellion on my hands. I'd like to think they have developed good eating habits from the examples gained at home. So what if they now occasionally get a packet of crisps from the corner shop. Can't we stop infantalising our future?

Another brick in the wall!

James said...

As a school we have much more confidential data than just an identifier of a fingerprint.
The system has been in place for years and remove the stigma of free-school meals.

The "Business Manager" jibe is greatly appreciated, Thanks.

The government has given schools independence over multi-million pound budgets (you know, grant maintained, city technology colleges, academies), someone has to be responsible for this and Head teachers have better things to do, like directing and developing excellent teaching and learning.

We could easily get rid of business managers if school funds were managed by the local authority. - But that wouldn't fit your other arguements would it?

Guthrum said...

You may have ' won ' the election but big government is still there carrying on regardless, and you should have dealt with the BBC on day 2

Barnacle Bill said...

Remember the NuLabor mantra - "If you've got nothing to hide ..."

Unsworth said...

Having read the comments to date I'd add a few further views. Some time ago our LEA apparently agreed with Department of Health to insist that all children be weighed regularly throughout their attendance in schools.

I took the advice of parents. Many of them were seriously concerned that this information would be passed on to unknown third parties and that the whole process would cause embarrassment (or worse) to some children who might be regarded as 'over' or 'under' weight. The LEA offered its assurances to the Governors (via the Head Teacher) that the information given to it would be secure, but naturally could not offer such assurances on behalf of the Department. It then admitted that it would be passing the details to other government agencies. No guarantees were given as to security etc. Further, it transpired that there was already a plan to link these details to those already being extracted from GPs practices.

The Governors, rightly, refused the request.

It's all very well saying that this practice occurs in some schools. That is their choice. I do not see why it should therefore be regarded as mandatory.

As a matter of interest, one of my schools is a particularly large and successful Primary. Dinner money is collected by the School Office, entirely separately from the (bought in) catering arrangements. The number of those entitled to free school meals is relatively high. There is absolutely no discrimination and the school staff exercise considerable discretion and decent care for all their charges.

I'm staggered that Brenda's school seems to operate in this manner. It's relatively easy to ensure proper confidentiality of such sensitive information. I'm also surprised that she is employed as a teacher, but that is another matter.

The arguments that such systems are technically flawed are crass. They are based on the notion that it's OK to do this sort of thing without due consideration,consultation and agreement, and that such systems' performances will never improve - nor will they be modified for other purposes.

Laban said...

I don't like it at all.

But it's been in use in school libraries for ten years or more.

Roger Thornhill said...

"The main reason? To stop the stigma of being on "Free dinners" that flashing a card to the dinner server always brings"

Typical - screw up a working system and then "fix" it.

In my school we had dinner tickets and the free ones were almost indistinguishable from the rest. Sorted. No need for electronic bollox used as a smokescreen to get hold of what they really want - fingerprints. This is doubleplusgood as in the process some parasitical rent-seeking tech company can "thank" people for spending other peoples' money on its kit.

Unknown said...

The company that offers this service to our school has a strong privacy statement, but that can be changed at any time, merely by an update on their web site. The only way to opt out is to refuse to take meals at school, as information on purchases is collected regardless of whether you use the finger-print system. Here's the quote:

"By publishing a Change Notice on our website (, we may modify any of the terms and conditions within this Agreement at any time and at our sole discretion, such Change Notice to give at least 30 days notice. If any of the modifications are unacceptable to you, your only recourse is to terminate using the service. If you use xx beyond 30 days after the Change Notice, it will be considered as your acceptance of the change."

Nigel said...

>>I can imagine that if there is a theft at the school then the police will want to access the school's fingerprint records and once they have it then it will be stored away like all the other fingerprints and DNA they get from innocent people.<<

You might well imagine this, JMB, but you'd be entirely wrong.
Firstly, the police wouldn't want access, as the data held would be of no use to them in the manner you imagine; secondly, they wouldn't be entitled to make any such request.

I am entirely in agreement with those who are anxious about the amount information the state holds on all of us, and the uses it is put to. Such concern in this case, however, is misguided.

Penfold said...

The Brave New world of socialism, where you have nothing to worry about provided you are a loyal party member.
Why are they not using swipe cards?

Gareth said...

If bullying over free school dinners is a problem deal with the bullys. It's much cheaper than these things!

If hounding children over their receipt of free school meals is wrong, and the school wants children to see that it is wrong, you won't deal with the problem by turning away from it with fingerprints, cards or other technical 'solutions'.

If the fingerprinting is to avoid the potential for bullying why are some schools using the same systems in place of library cards?

Nigel said...

Swipe cards get lost or stolen (one reason why many schools are looking this technology for secure entry systems).

Unknown said...

Are you practising to become a Daily Mail columnist?

Get a grip, if you don't like the scheme then opt out.

HampsteadOwl said...

Always knew the Brave New World was coming.

Just didn't figure it would kick off in Saffron Walden.

Brian said...

In common with most boys of my age (mid forties) my hands never stayed clean long enough for this to have worked with any degree of reliability. Balsa cement and Qink laminated my fingertips. Indeed wouldn't a false fingertip skin made from latex work in order to confound the system? Well within the craft skills of the average 13 year old back then.

Guy de Ferrer said...

everyone is ignoring another side to this. My daughter's school introduced this system last year. A short time later, over half the school was off with the norovirus. The contamination was spread through the fingerprint swipe.