Schools lining up to fingerprint pupils

23 May 2007

50 Irish schools have expressed an interest in biometric attendance management technology in the past month, a provider of biometric fingerprinting systems has told

Dublin-based Byamsys said this surge of interest was on top of a large number of schools that are already working with the company on rolling out fingerprinting systems.

“We’re working with it on a large number of schools,” said John Beckett, managing director of Byamsys. “We’ve partnered with a company called Shaw Scientific in Ireland who have a 40-year relationship with a vast number of schools. 50 schools have expressed an interest in the past month alone in Ireland, and that’s on top of our existing clients.”

The systems Byamsys implements use fingerprint scanners placed around the entrances to the schools to record students’ attendance, thus freeing up time that would otherwise be spent on lengthy roll calls.

One school that has completed a pilot of the technology and hopes to implement it fully in September is St Andrew’s in Booterstown, Co Dublin. Headmaster Arthur Godsil said the primary reason for rolling it out is to ensure no students get through the net.

“The primary reason was to know who was in the school and what time they came in at. It’s a foolproof way of making sure I know who’s on site,” he said.

St Andrew’s has six panels located around the school and intends to add more. Students scan their fingerprints when they arrive in the morning. If a student doesn’t scan in, an automatic text message or email is sent to their parents informing them of this, but only after a period of time during which the school can ascertain whether there is another reason the student didn’t scan in.

Godsil explained the system would ensure the school of 1,279 pupils is completely compliant with the Education Welfare Act, which requires schools to know the whereabouts of its pupils during school hours.

In March the Data Protection Commissioner issued guidelines about the use of biometric fingerprinting in schools. The main stipulation was that parents and children over 18 had to give their consent to use the system.

“If a parent doesn’t consent the child is outside the loop,” said Godsil.

According to Godsil, the reaction of parents and children has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I’ve had one parent ring me and one call in to see me about it. Parents are quite happy with it and the kids quite like it because they click in themselves. They don’t have to be clicked in by a teacher. It gives more time for teachers to do other things instead of taking rolls. I’ve a woman here who works three hours a morning checking all the absences. That’s a lot of time.”

Beckett, a past pupil of St Andrew’s, explained that data protection and privacy were the key priorities when developing the technology. “There’s no way to reproduce the data we store as a fingerprint. We don’t store the data as a fingerprint.

“When students check in their fingerprint is scanned and converted into a string of letters and numbers which is encrypted and then compared to the encrypted file that we have already for that person. There’s never a decryption process.

“If, for example, there was a break-in at the school and the gardai were able to get fingerprints from the window there’s no possible way to cross-reference the fingerprint information from the window with the database of students.”

However, lobby group Digital Rights Ireland has criticised the rollout of fingerprint technology in schools. Chairman TJ McIntyre said schools could provide no guarantee that the gardai won’t request information held on the database. He also expressed scepticism about the data being useless to other parties.

“There is a standard that’s used across the industry for biometrics to ensure different systems are compatible. The biometrics people will tell you they generate a hash of the fingerprint so the fingerprint itself isn’t stored, just the information that enables you to compare it with the particular fingerprint that’s placed on the scanner. That’s correct as far as it goes, but what they don’t explain is that the information used there is capable of being reconstructed to give you soft fingerprint information and it’s still possible to be used in police work.”

While this “soft” information may not stand up in court it could potentially be used in a police investigation, McIntyre claimed. “The question in these things is not what it is initially intended to be used for but what else it could be used for.”

Byamsys has stated its system cannot be used in this way. It said at no time is an image of the fingerprint stored by the system and it is not possible to recreate a fingerprint from the data stored.

Digital Rights Ireland has criticised the implementation of such systems on other grounds, such as their viability if a large number of students opt out. Beckett told that students who opt out will be able to use proximity cards with encoded data to scan in.

Bernie Goldbach of Digital Rights Ireland said he would prefer to see technology like this being used all the time in place of fingerprinting. “It’s less intrusive. What you get is an identity device as well as a door-opening device and something students can use for their lunch money.

“With a card you’re not exactly sure it’s the same person but most kids don’t give up cards that have money on them and they don’t lose them. They learn a bit of responsibility without losing a part of their identity.

“We give up a lot of stuff today. We’re rolling out a lot of technology without safeguards.”

“Kids are being desensitised and they don’t realise the implications at such a young age,” added McIntyre. “There is a risk they’ll be desensitised to it being used on them at a later stage in life.”

“There are no civil liberties issues in relation to any other usage that the school would have for those particular pieces of information,” commented Godsil. “I think its possible to roll it out across the board. It’s a perfectly safe system and it’s a sensible system to use.”

“We used the Data Protection Commissioner’s guidelines for the use of biometrics in the workplace from day one,” said Beckett. “We were actually compliant with 99pc of the guidelines for schools prior to them being released. We were only too happy to have a more formal structure around the use of biometrics in schools.”

He cited the benefits of biometrics as certainty for parents that their children are in school, more accurate attendance records for parent-teacher meetings and the overnight elimination of unauthorised truancy.

He also said that it empowered students to be responsible for their own attendance.

According to Byamsys, the cost of implementing biometric fingerprinting varies depending on the size of the school and the customisation requirements, but it could be anything between €10,000-20,000.

By Niall Byrne