Fingerprinting of UK school kids causes outcry

Prison-style fingerprint checking technology replaces library cards, or What Big Brother did next

The widespread fingerprinting of UK primary school children has been roundly condemned by watchdog Privacy International.

The human rights watchdog today warned that tens of thousands of UK school children are being fingerprinted by schools, often without the knowledge or consent of their parents.

This under-reported electronic finger printing is being conducted as part of a cost cutting "automation" of school libraries. Privacy International has condemned the procedure, branding it "dangerous, illegal and unnecessary".

As many as 200,000 primary and high school children from the age of seven have already been finger printed. Supplier Micro Librarian Systems estimates that its technology, which is similar to identification systems used in US prisons and by the German military, is in use by 350 schools throughout the country.

The system (euphemistically called Junior Librarian) is been used to replace library cards and to increase efficiency of library management. Each child is required to place a thumb onto an electronic scanner, and the identity of the print is then stored in a computer.

Privacy International says the practice "de-humanises our children and degrades their human rights", and has called for the unconditional withdrawal of the technology from schools.

Simon Davies, a director at Privacy International, said "the use of such systems will have the effect of de-sensitising people to more comprehensive privacy invasion -such as ID cards and DNA testing - later in life".

"Such a process has the effect of softening children up for such initiatives as ID cards and DNA testing", he added.

Information Czar

Privacy International also condemned the government's privacy watchdog for endorsing the technology.

In a letter (dated 4th July 2001) to MLS, the Information Commission's compliance officer, Robert Mechan, argued that finger printing "aids compliance with the Data Protection Act".

In subsequent media coverage, the Commission (which is supposed to protect information privacy) was reported as wanting to "encourage" the use of finger printing in schools.

The Information Commissioner's support for fingerprinting was given despite its stated view that it was "theoretically" possible to use the prints for law enforcement purposes.

Privacy international described this stance as "a bleak moment for privacy in Britain" and said the "Commissioner has brought disrepute to its role". It has called an inquiry by Commons Committees into the Commissioner's role in endorsing the technology.

The practice came to light after Privacy International and the children's rights group "Action on Rights for Children in Education" (ARCH) received a complaint from the mother of a child attending Sacred Heart School in Ruislip, London. The child had been fingerprinted without the parents' knowledge or consent. They have subsequently demanded the removal of the prints from the library computer system.

Privacy International warned that the practice of finger printing for the purpose of library cards was in clear violation of the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act.

"The law states that privacy invasion must be proportionate to the threat. A few lost library cards do not warrant mass finger printing," said Davies.

It is also likely that the practice breaches Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says "no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy..."

The campaign against fingerprinting technology comes as its supplier
MLScontemplates its extension from libraries to applications such as registration, attendance, and security. ®

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External Links

Privacy International's campaign on child fingerprinting

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