The student fingerprints taken without parental permission

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A civil liberties group has this week raised privacy fears after Freedom of Information figures suggest more than one million pupils have been fingerprinted by their schools. Pete Henshaw reports.

Almost a third of schools did not consult parents before enrolling students into biometric information systems during the last academic year, a report has claimed.

The study, based on Freedom of Information requests to more than 3,200 schools, estimates that fingerprints have now been taken from more than one million students.

The report has been compiled by the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch.

It estimates that during the 2012/13 academic year, 31 per cent of schools were using the biometric information of their pupils without having sought parents’ permission.

Biometric data can include things such as finger or palm prints and iris scans. An increasing number of schools now take this information for things like cashless catering, building access, library book borrowing, and to record attendance.

Previously schools, including academies, and further education colleges did not have to get written parental consent to use biometric recognition systems, but the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which came into force in September last year, changed the rules. They now state:

  • For all pupils in schools and colleges under 18, they must obtain the written consent of a parent before they take and process their child’s biometric data.

  • They must treat the data with appropriate care and must comply with data protection principles as set out in the Data Protection Act 1998.

  • They must provide alternative means for accessing services where a parent or pupil has refused consent (a pupil’s objection overrides any parental consent given).

While there was no requirement on schools implementing biometric systems during the last academic year to seek permission, Big Brother Watch says the number which did not ask parents is still alarming.

The data on which the report is based includes both secondary schools and academies. Of the 1,255 responses received from the Freedom of Information requests, 499 schools (40 per cent) confirmed they were using biometric systems in 2012/13 and between them these schools had fingerprinted 536,062 pupils.

Of these schools, just 69 per cent said they had consulted with parents before enrolling children into the systems.

Based on these figures, Big Brother Watch estimates that as many as 1.28 million children could have been fingerprinted by schools using biometrics.

The new legislation does not require schools and colleges to seek retrospective permission for biometric systems already in place before September 2013, but does require that any institutions wishing to continue to process biometric data from September 2013 have written consents from parents.

A statement from Big Brother Watch said: “Parents will be rightly concerned to hear so many schools did not seek their permission to fingerprint their children, while pupils may not have been made aware they now have a legal right to ask to use a system that doesn’t require a fingerprint to be taken.

“The government was right to change the law but it’s up to parents to make sure the law is being followed.

“Going to school should not mean kids are taught they have no privacy, especially at a time when we are sharing more data about ourselves than ever before. 

“Fingerprinting them and tracking what they do might save some admin work but the risk is pupils think it is normal to be tracked like this all the time. Schools need to be transparent about what data is being collected and how it is used.”

“Processing” biometric information includes obtaining, recording or holding the data and the report adds: “Schools and colleges must take steps to ensure that pupils understand that they can object or refuse to allow their biometric data to be taken/used and that, if they do this, the school or college will have to provide them with an alternative method of accessing relevant services. 

“The steps taken by schools and colleges to inform pupils should take account of their age and level of understanding. Parents should also be told of their child’s right to object or refuse and be encouraged to discuss this with their child.”

The Department for Education’s guidance on meeting the new responsibilities for biometric systems under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 is online: http://bit.ly/KUkvdS

Big Brother Watch was founded in 2009 to challenge government policy that threatens privacy or civil liberties. Visit www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk


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