MPs investigate school fingerprinting
The Register | January 22, 2007
Opposition MPs have begun investigating the use of biometric scanners in UK schools and the use of funds that might otherwise be spent buying books and learning materials to buy the systems.
Foremost in written parliamentary questions tabled by Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs was the question of fingerprint scanners being bought with e-Learning credits, which are a mechanism used by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) to provide schools with direct funding to buy educational software.
Sarah Teather, shadow education secretary and MP for Brent East, asked the government whether it had given schools permission to use e-Learning credits to buy biometric scanners that took children's fingerprints.
"I believe that the collection of biometric data from young pupils without parental consent is illegal and must cease," she told The Register in a written statement.
"The DfES needs to consult with parents, pupils, and local authorities. This can't be a decision made by ministers behind closed doors."
Parents who have been campaigning against their children being fingerprinted at school without their consent met yesterday with Teather and Nick Gibb, the Conservative shadow minister for schools.
A Conservative spokeswoman said Gibb was writing about his concerns over school fingerprinting to schools Minister Jim Knight.
Gibb asked the government if it knew how many schools were collecting their pupils' fingerprints, whether fingerprint scanners could be bought with e-Learning credits, and what advice the DfES was giving schools about the security of data they kept about children.
The DfES gave £330m straight to schools for spending on e-Learning materials to April 2006, after which it dished out another £125m to last until 2008.
Campaigners are concerned that thousands of schools have used their money to buy fingerprint scanners to get kids' dabs at registration, at the library counter, and at the canteen checkout.
The Register could find only two known suppliers of fingerprint systems on the list (http://www.curriculumonline.gov.uk/SupplierAZ/A-ZIndex.htm) of those whose products are approved for purchase with e-Learning credits.
Micro Librarian Systems (MLS) managing director Andrew O'Brien said about 9,000 primary schools had bought its base system at an average cost of £1,100.
Schools were authorised to buy MLS's system using e-Learning credits, but the purchases where justified because the software tied children's experience in the library into the ICT and literacy curriculum, he said.
But the biometric module, which scanned children's fingerprints before authorising their borrowing of library books and cost £260, was an additional module that could not be bought with e-Learning credits.
Moreover, O'Brien said: "We've always recommended with schools the importance of a dialogue [with parents] before doing it."
The fingerprints were translated into codes that could not be reversed back into prints and the data was stored using 128-bit "military-level" encryption so the children's biometrics where safe.
Softlink Europe operations director Paul Dhesi, the other supplier of biometrics known by The Register to be approved for deals involving schools' e-Learning credits, said its fingerprint scanner was also optional.
Only its base software could be bought with e-Learning credits. About 1,000 primary schools had bought the base system at a cost of up to £1,500, while about 2,500 secondary schools had purchased at a cost of up to £3,000.
About 500 to 600 schools had bought the biometric add-on, he said, at a cost of £140. He said his firm also recommended that headteachers consult with parents before installing fingerprint scanners. ®
These reports from the suppliers, however, were misleading.
"There's an 80/20 rule," said David Hassell, executive director of educational content at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, which part-administers the e-Learning programme for the DfES.
Non-educational and hardware components like fingerprint scanners can be bought to one quarter the value of the main curriculum software purchased with e-Learning credits, he said.
BECTA did random checks on purchases made with e-Learning credits, said Hassell, but it did not have enough intelligence to know which firms where selling biometric components. This would be covered by the DfES.
He that with over 1,000 suppliers and 17,000 products approved for purchase with e-Learning credits, there far too many suppliers for him to know which were selling biometric hardware as part of a software sale.
However, the DfES was responsible for checking schools expenditure, he added.®
Last week, the DfES said (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/01/12/kiddyprint_review/) that stories claiming it was drawing up guidance in the use of biometrics for schools where overcooked, and that such guidance was perennially revised.
It said its admission that such guidance was being drawn up was "not a u-turn".
However, in answer to other Parliamentary questions tabled by Teather and Gibb, the DfES claimed last July that it didn't have guidance on the the use of biometrics by schools.
In answer last September to an FOI request placed by the Liberal Democrats, the DfES said: "DfES has issued no guidance to schools on the collection and recording of pupils' biometric information and has no plans to do so."
Last week's statement could not have been a u-turn because, though the DfES did admit to drawing up guidance in the context of fingerprint scanning, its guidance was merely in relation to the Data Protection Act.
"We already provide specific guidance to schools on handling all pupil information under the Data Protection Act," it said.
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