MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Thu 09-Jan-14 13:53:14

Fingerprinting pupils in schools teaches children they have no right to privacy

According to new research by civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, 40% of schools are using biometric technology to track their pupils - and 31% of them did not consult parents before doing so.

Here, deputy director Emma Carr argues that schools should be much more transparent about the surveillance systems they use - and that they have a duty to educate their pupils about their right to privacy.

Read the post, and tell us what you think: were you aware that some schools are fingerprinting their pupils without parental consent - and if so, are you concerned?

Emma Carr

Deputy Director, Big Brother Watch

Posted on: Thu 09-Jan-14 13:53:14

(60 comments )

Lead photo

40% of schools are using biometric technology, according to Big Brother Watch

How would you feel if your child returned home from school and told you that they had just been fingerprinted?

If this has already happened in your family, you’re not alone. New research from Big Brother Watch has found that more than one million children, in approximately 40% of schools, have been fingerprinted in a single academic year - part of an increasing trend towards using biometric technology as a means of identification when buying school lunches, registering attendance or issuing library books.

So what’s the problem? Well, approximately 31% weren’t consulted or asked to give consent for this to happen to their child.

The new research follows the 2012 reportThe Class of 1984,which highlighted the fact that there are more than 100,000 CCTV cameras in Britain and that - shockingly - more than two hundred schools are using cameras inside bathrooms and changing rooms.

For some parents, the use of biometrics within schools will be a perfectly acceptable use of resources and technology - part of the trend towards the use of increasingly sophisticated technology in the classroom. Others, though, will be profoundly uncomfortable that their child has been asked to part with personal, identifiable, simply in order to ease the administrative process. Wouldn’t you like the opportunity to make the call?

Going to school should not mean that children are taught that they have no right to privacy - especially at a time when we are sharing more data about ourselves than ever before. On the contrary: schools arguably have a responsibility to fully explain issues like data protection, privacy, fraud and the use of biometrics as part of the education process.


Fingerprinting children and tracking their movements and activities might save some admin work - but the risk is that pupils begin to believe that it’s ‘normal’ to be constantly tracked. Going to school should not mean that children are taught that they have no right to privacy - especially at a time when we are sharing more data about ourselves than ever before. On the contrary: schools arguably have a responsibility to fully explain issues like data protection, privacy, fraud and the use of biometrics as part of the education process. Many schools, however, appear to be failing to fully educate pupils about these increasingly important topics.

Schools need to be transparent about what data they collect and how it is used, but for many schools this is far from standard practice. This research was carried out after a spike in complaints from concerned parents who had either been provided with a vague letter, or had received no information at all, about plans to fingerprint their child. Giving consent, for many, simply did not come into the equation. In some cases, those that protested, or questioned the motivation for using the technology received a rough ride from school administrators.

It is this confusion about what information parents should have received from school and whether consent should have been sought that provoked the Government to pass the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which came into effect in September 2013. This legislation has created an clear legal framework which states that parents and pupils have a legal guarantee that no fingerprints should be taken without the school gaining explicit consent (written from parents and oral from pupils) - and that an alternative must be made available if they did not wish to participate.

The full extent of school surveillance is far higher than most people would expect, and will come as a shock to many parents. Schools need to come clean about the surveillance systems they use - and local authorities need to be doing far more to reign in excessive surveillance in their areas, and to ensure that resources are not being diverted from more effective alternatives.

Parents will be rightly concerned to hear that so many schools are not seeking permission to fingerprint children, while pupils may not have been made aware they now have a legal right to use a system that doesn’t require a fingerprint to be taken. The Government was right to change the law - but, sadly, it looks as though it’s going to be up to parents to make sure the law is being followed.

By Emma Carr

Twitter: @bbw1984

VivaLeBeaver Thu 09-Jan-14 21:04:47

Dd's school thumb print for canteen purchasing. Doesn't bother me at all. As others have said its not a proper thumb print, not enough info is retained/measured for it to be used for anything else, Blah, blah, more sciencey stuff, blah.

Not worth getting your knickers in a twist for at all.

SirChenjin Thu 09-Jan-14 21:05:16

Oh for goodness sake - really? I suggest that Big Brother Watch go and do something more productive than trying to whip up hysteria over school lunch cards.

ArgyMargy Thu 09-Jan-14 22:09:13

Agree - this is very silly. The thumbprint has so many advantages (like most technology) and stops abuse of lunch money etc. My son's school gates also allow 6th formers to leave and enter school premises using their thumb. Nothing whatsoever to do with privacy, unless you call allowing parents to see what their child has eaten as an invasion of privacy. Gah!

Frozennortherner Thu 09-Jan-14 22:13:46

Thankyou mythbustingov. That's a really sensible and explanatory post. Has Mumsnet turned into The Daily Mail, I wonder? Why such sensationalism? MNHQ - has your editorial and journalistic responsibility deserted you? you are whipping up paranoia by allowing this ridiculous blog post?

ButThereAgain Fri 10-Jan-14 00:36:34

Really don't understand why a sticky thread on mn's talkboard is the right place for what seems pretty much like a modified press release from this group (whose founder also seems to be associated with the Taxpayers Alliance, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence). They've managed to get the same story out into the press fairly effectively, so the info is out there for any mn user who wanted to start a thread about it in the usual way. The nice thing about a talkboard is a grassroots shaping of the discussion agenda. I can read a paper if I want a hit of lightly reprocessed press releases.

My son had his fingerprint scanned. I've no concerns about it, for the reasons the school governor outlined in an earlier post.

ButThereAgain Fri 10-Jan-14 01:25:09

Since they have an overlap of senior figures, is there a kind of symmetry between the Taxpayers Alliance and Big Brother Watch, I wonder? TA trawls for alleged examples of state entities Wasting Our Money, and BBW trawls for examples of state entities Stealing Our Data, with the starting principle in each case being that everything the state does should be treated as guilty-until-proved-innocent of a diabolical imposition. Rather than as attempts at collective projects for mutual benefit.

Just a thought. I don 't know much about BBW, so perhaps that isn't a fair picture.

xtremeraverbaby Fri 10-Jan-14 05:03:00

I think taking fingerprints is a bit excessive! just because qe have that technology doesnt mean everyone has to use it, also surely this lark is expensive wouldnt that money have been better spent? I think a basic swipe card with the pupil's photo would be more appropriate similar to what a lot of adults use to clock into work with, and foil bullys taking dinner/money at the same time

NumptyNameChange Fri 10-Jan-14 07:02:17

the post is massively lacking in any real facts that could allow anyone to take an informed view. re: are these full fingerprints that would stand up in court? how are they stored? how long are they stored for? are they destroyed when the child leaves school? how are they protected and are they shared with anyone? etc.

also love that the poster blithely asserts that schools should be teaching about data protection and rights to privacy and are failing by not doing so. guessing this is someone who hasn't worked in schools and got experience of the vast amount now expected to be covered within the curriculum on a limited timetable fit to bursting.

NigellasDealer Fri 10-Jan-14 08:09:49

hahahahaha 'rights to privacy' good that they learn young that there are none and that as adults they can have their fingerprints and DNA taken and added to Blair's database by the police at any time regardless of whether or not they have committed a crime. so it is good to get them in training for the surveillance society they have been born into.

CalamitouslyWrong Fri 10-Jan-14 08:50:15

Well the whole 'schools should be teaching x, y and z' thing is the kind of lazy argument that's employed about all and sundry, with no thought to when or how schools are supposed to do so. Schools aren't a panacea. You can't just keeping adding topics and subjects every time you think something in society needs fixed. And so often 'teach about' actually means 'teach children to believe what we want them to' not give them a range of information and the tools to think critically and come to their own position.

I agree that MN shouldn't be giving BBW's poorly thought through nonsense the publicity. It's scaremongering pure and simple.

WaitingForPeterWimsey Fri 10-Jan-14 09:38:27

Myth,

Can you explain a few questions I still have then, please?

So, finger is scanned and scanned image is given a unique identifier?

Scanned image is then deleted?

But of course the scanned image could always be retrieved as anything stored digitally is always retrievable?

If it is unique enough to distinguish between 1,400 pupils, why couldn't this scanned image be used in due course to identify someone for other purposes?

NumptyNameChange Fri 10-Jan-14 09:43:56

nothing links the print and the identifier presumably waiting - bit like when you go to an anonymous std clinic nothing links your name to your file as your name is replaced by a number for finding you and no record of number to name is kept - or that's how it used to be.

MrsSquirrel Fri 10-Jan-14 10:33:30

Waiting when the finger is scanned, but no image is created. The computer creates and stores a series of numbers that relate to certain points on the finger.

Later on, when the pupil buys their lunch and presents their finger, the computer goes through a similar process of creating a series of numbers and then 'looks' for those numbers on a database.

There is no scanned image to store or retrieve.

mythbustinggov Fri 10-Jan-14 12:31:18

Waiting - different systems work in different ways, but think of it like this. The scan draws a number of lines (4 or 5) across the finger at different points and directions and uses the random number of whorls (the lines in your fingerprint) along each line to generate a number. That number is then hashed with the other numbers from the other lines to produce a unique number. No pictures are taken, no fingerprint is stored so there is nothing to retrieve except a bunch of numbers from a random finger. (I know most places ask for the index finger or thumb, and some ask for a second as a 'backup' in case of an injury - but any finger or toe will do).

You can't lose a finger.
Well not as easily as cash or a swipe card.

JimmyCorkhill Fri 10-Jan-14 15:21:36

There seems to be a consensus that fingerprint ID is preferable as lots of children lose money/cards. Is it just me or is this another example of us molly coddling the next generation? In my day (!) if you lost your dinner money you had to deal with the consequences. Especially at secondary school age. Are we just teaching children that they don't need to be responsible for themselves?

SirChenjin Fri 10-Jan-14 15:31:02

No - we're using technology to make life easier and keep our money safer.

ArgyMargy Fri 10-Jan-14 16:26:43

What Sir said.

JimmyCorkhill Fri 10-Jan-14 19:43:45

Seriously? That's insane. So money will become completely virtual. How will children understand it if all they have to do is press their finger on a screen and payment is sorted. Yes, I use a bank card and internet banking but I have a grounding in actual coins and notes. Is it making life easier or is it handing over responsibility to others and expecting to be taken care of? That's giving away power and control of your own life.

mythbustinggov Fri 10-Jan-14 20:00:43

It's happening already - London Buses and Underground are going cashless, the school where I'm a governor is cashless, you can pay for things with your phone - and, more importantly, keep track of everything on your phone. How is that not beet than random lumps of metal and grubby bits of paper that anyone can take from you by force or stealth?

mythbustinggov Fri 10-Jan-14 20:01:31

Pah. Better, not beet. I'm not proposing some kind of root vegetable barter system.

SirChenjin Fri 10-Jan-14 20:10:39

So money will become completely virtual

It might - but that will be the world that generation lives in, and they will have adapted accordingly. The technology is already there - I wouldn't be at all surprised if actual money becomes obsolete fairly soon. 40 years ago we didn't have debit cards, internet banking or cash machines - now we use them as a matter of course, and I don't know about you but I certainly don't feel as if I'm handing control over to anyone; quite the opposite in fact.

On the other hand, I do quite like mythbustinggov's idea of a root vegetable barter system grin

JimmyCorkhill Fri 10-Jan-14 20:15:56

I'm not a Luddite. I don't have any desire to live 'off grid' grin But I just think that by making everything so simple you are removing both the responsibility and the understanding from people. If I go shopping and pay by card I probably couldn't tell you how much I spent as I am too removed from the process. My card was accepted and that's that. But if I pay by cash I am completely aware. It's why taking only the cash you need is suggested so often for budgeting. I'm sure you know of someone who has
paid the wrong amount on a chip and pin machine because we just type in the PIN and don't check or register the amount.

SirChenjin Fri 10-Jan-14 20:27:26

See - I'm the complete opposite. If I pay by cash I lose track of what I've spent - it becomes meaningless, whereas when I pay by debit card (which is what I usually do) then I can log onto internet banking and keep tabs of what I've spent down to the last 50p. I always check the amount before pressing enter on the keypad and had never encountered an incorrect amount entered by the shop assistant, whereas I have received the incorrect change in the past - had I not checked the change I would have stuck in back in my pocket (as I'm sure many people do) and walked away.

Debit cards and internet banking all the way here - and I'm an ancient in my mid forties grin

CalamitouslyWrong Fri 10-Jan-14 22:01:15

I almost never have any cash on me. I find it really annoying when I have to pay in cash. If I could pay for everything electronically, I would.

Any cash that I have ends up frittered away on silly stuff. 'Oh, I've got a pound in my purse. Yes, you can have one of those pokemon capsules they have machines that dispense them in sainsbury's'.

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