Schools rush to fingerprint children before UK Freedom Bill change

Fingerprinting of children has got worse, with “more and more schools falling over themselves” to get pupil biometrics, a rights group has told TechEye.

Action on Rights for Children (ARCH) is wondering if the rush is because of proposed changes in the Freedom bill.  

Currently, schools don’t have to ask for parental consent to take fingerprints from children – which can be used to access classrooms, take books out of the library or as a way to provide cashless school dinners.

However, if the bill goes ahead, it will mean schools will require consent from both the parent and child to gain fingerprints.  

Terri Dowty, director at ARCH, told TechEye: “Schools are falling over themselves to get fingerprinting before the new rules come into place. We’re pleased about the new proposals, which will mean that children’s parents get a say.

“Not only does the current system mean that young children can be coaxed into this but it also sets a dangerous president for privacy in the future. If a child is taught that it’s ok to give their fingerprints to anyone who asks – then later on we could see some security breaches.”

She points out that headteachers could have take issue to amendments, as parents unsurprisingly have qualms about letting their children get fingerprinted.

She’s not alone in thinking this. A recent poll by the Guardian found that  90 percent of parents were unhappy about the practice, while a deputy head teacher also told us he had seen some resistance from parents.

The deputy, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells us: “If the bill goes ahead it will make life harder as parents aren’t always happy about it, but we haven’t been increasing this because we’re worried.

“That said there has been mutterings from the governors that we should speed up the process before we have to ask for consent.”

He also provided insight into the way some schools think.

“We’ve been fingerprinting children since the ICO gave us the go ahead back in 2001. We usually don’t ask for parental consent because we haven’t needed to, and with the younger ones we can turn it into a little game.

“There’s nothing wrong with it. We only use them for access to the library and as a quick way to order school dinners,” he added.

The Information Commissioner’s Office currently states: “There is nothing explicit in the Data Protection Act to require schools to seek consent from all parents before implementing a fingerprinting application.

“However, unless schools can be certain that all children understand the implications of giving their fingerprints, they must fully involve parents in order to ensure that the information is obtained fairly.”

Ms Dowty said the ICO was “wrong” when it made the rules in 2001.

In an unpublished document, ARCH explains that the practice began when a company called Microlibrarian systems (MLS) approached the ICO to ask for comments on the company’s plans to incorporate biometric fingerprint readers into school library systems, replacing the use of cards. 

The ICO raised no objections and in fact supplied MLS with a letter endorsing the use of fingerprinting.  MLS then approached the DfES (as it then was) with this letter, and the use of biometrics was approved.

With the new rules in place, really it will be the companies selling biometric systems – and that’s around 34 – that will suffer.

If there’s less demand there will be less need for their systems.  

But a spokesperson for Microlibrarian Systems told TechEye that it wasn’t fussed: “Personally I haven’t heard any concerns from the company, it doesn’t seem like it’ll be a concern and if you have to ask for consent then you have to ask for it.”