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China strikes blow for privacy

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The Hong Kong privacy commissioner has ordered a school to stop fingerprinting children before it becomes a runaway trend that is too late to stop.

The school, in the Kowloon District, installed the system last year but, under the order of the Hong Kong Privacy Commission, has ripped it out and destroyed all the fingerprint data it had taken from children.

Roderick Woo, Justice of the Peace at the Hong Kong Office of the Privacy Commissioner, told El Reg he had decided to examine the issue immediately after the first school installed a fingerprint reader to take registers in his jurisdiction.

And, he decided: "It was a contravention of our law, which is very similar to your law, which is that the function of the school is not to collect data in this manner, that it was excessive and that there was a less privacy-intrusive method to use."

In other words, he said, what better way is there for a teacher to take a register than to look around the class, note who's missing, and take down their names for the record. Measuring fingerprints seemed a little over the top for the task in hand, which translated into terms understood by privacy laws, means that the use of information technology was not proportionate to the task in hand.

He also looked at the need of schools to get consent from either pupils or parents before they took fingerprints at class registration. This is an avenue being considered by parents in the UK who want to challenge schools that have taken their children's fingerprints without parental consent.

Britain's Information Commissioner has said it might be enough for a school to get the consent of a child before taking its fingerprints.

Woo, however, decided otherwise: "I considered the consent of the staff and pupils rather dubious, because primary school's consent in law cannot be valid and there's undue influence. If the school says, 'give up your fingerprint', there's no way of negotiating.

"Also it's not a good way to teach our children how to give privacy rights the consideration they deserve," he added.

That is another fear expressed by some parents opposed to their children being fingerprinted, even when the majority of the systems in use are much more primitive than those used in criminal investigations.

The Hong Kong Office of the Privacy Commissioner ordered the school to remove the fingerprint system in the hope it would discourage other schools from installing similar systems without careful consideration, and prevent a rush of school fingerprinting as has occured in Britain.

However, Woo did note that other schools could not fingerprint their children for other purposes.

"That's not to say I'm opposed to any fingerprint scanning systems. I will look at any complaint on a case by case basis. It's not an anti hi-tech attitude I take," he said. ®

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