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Info Commissioner: Too late to stop school fingerprinting

Not that we really tried in the first place

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So many schools are taking the fingerprints of their pupils that it's too late to do anything about it, according to the Information Commissioner.

Yet the privacy guardian hasn't a clue just how many schools are taking children's fingerprints when they take registration, issue books from the library, or dish food out in the canteen (one supplier, at last count, had installed 3,500 systems). And the guidelines the Information Commissioner (ICO) promised nearly three months ago, which would reassure parents and instruct schools in the fine art of civil liberties, are still on the drawing board.

David Smith, deputy information commissioner, said: "For us to come out now and say fingerprinting isn't allowed would be very difficult because these systems have come in over the last four years. We were asked about them and we said it was okay." [Does that mean the government should un-ban handguns and hunting with dogs? Ed]

The ICO guidelines might now be written in collaboration with the Department for Education and Skills, he said, which is drawing up its own rulebook for school dabbers.

The preview the ICO gave The Register of its guidelines in September suggested that parents could not even ask schools to seek their consent before fingerprinting their children. Yet this is the least parents expect - as well as some consultation.

"It is all very well, the DfES drawing up guidelines, but we parents want to have input," said David Clouter, of campaign group Leave Them Kids Alone.

When Stockport based kiddyprinting supplier Micro Librarian Systems asked the Information Commissioner in 2001 whether there were any reasons why schools should not use its system to issue library books, the ICO wrote that it would be fine - the system is apparently like a toy fingerprint scanner, operating with just enough sophistication to distinguish between the prints taken from 700 school children, but not easily used for the purposes of law enforcement.

Smith stands by that advice, despite the growing interest from people like Nick Gibb and Sarah Teather, education spokespeople for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats respectively, who are meeting campaigning parents this week. Parents will also meet Labour MP Tom Watston, who has supported their campaign and called for a public debate.

Such a request might be difficult when kiddyprinting firms like Vericool - part of General Dynamics, a firm linked to the illegal US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay - refuse to take part in any debate.

Vericool UK managing director Nick Evans refused to comment.

These firms do contribute to the public debate in their own way, however. They send marketing materials to schools, reminding them that the DfES lets them buy fingerprint systems using their e-Learning credits, which are meant for the purchase of computer learning materials.

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