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School fingerprinter repents

"We should address parents' concerns"

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The managing director of one of the firms supplying fingerprint scanners to British schools has vowed to come clean to parents about the arguments against the use of such biometric technology on children.

In an interview with The Register Alisdair Darrock, managing director of Softlink, a firm that sells fingerprint scanners to schools, said he would change his advice for parents so they can make an informed decision about whether they want the school to take their children's dabs.

Darrock, who said he was opposed to ID cards, also accused parents campaigning against school fingerprinting of conducting a "false, nebulous debate" and challenged them to come up with coherent arguments against fingerprinting pupils.

Softlink, which sells systems that help run school libraries, has been selling biometric scanners to track school lenders for seven years. In all that time it has supplied a standard letter that schools can use to tell parents about the fingerprint scanning.

The letters are meant to give parents the power of consent over the fingerprinting of their children, but examples seen by The Register are biased in favour of using biometrics to regulate the behaviour of kids.

"What we tell schools is under review at the moment," said Darrock. "Our letter - we don't make people aware of what the issues are. We might go some way to outline some of the issues. We should list the concerns and then address them."

The standard letter that Softlink sends to schools that buy its fingerprint scanners dismisses the "media speculation" about school fingerprinting and claims that its own devices "do NOT compromise individual freedoms."

It provides schools with a standard letter they can send to kids. It talks about the implementation of fingerprint scanners in the school library as though it were a done deal and makes a strong case for parents to accept it as such.

"We are planning on having biometric devices in the school library to the improve the service," it opens.

Though it does say parents have an "opportunity to decide not to be involved in the system", it does not help them understand why this unfamiliar technology has caused enough concern for other parents to launch campaigns against it. It does explain why parents should be as happy about having their children's fingerprints scanned into a database as the school head and governors are.

Darrock explained how parents' concerns about his fingerprint technology, and how his own sense of duty, had always caused him to press schools to ask parents for consent before installing any fingerprint devices.

But this has not always happened, and there are plenty of other suppliers of similar biometric devices for schools. A letter sent to David Clouter, who organises the Leave Them Kids Alone campaign, and other parents at his children's school, contains no mention of an opt out at all.

A letter that stirred another parent, Pippa King, to campaign against the technology does explicitly ask for consent, but stresses that the Department for Education and Skills and the "Office of the Data Commissioner" have both endorsed the system - Micro Librarian System

"I would encourage you to employ the system using fingerprint images," it had them saying.

In a letter written to the MLS director Andy O'brien in October 2002, of which The Register has a copy, John Hopper, from the 'parental involvement in children's education team' at the Department for Education and Skills, applauded the advice MLS had given schools.

"We also note with approval that your literature strongly recommends that schools contact parents before using the software," said Hopper.

Robert Mechan, then an officer at the Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO), said in another letter to O'brien in 2001, said he believed MLS's fingerprint technology did not "raise any data protection concerns."

But the ICO has since grown more concerned about fingerprinting and said earlier this week it was concerned enough about the technology to advise schools to seek parental consent before installing any fingerprint scanners.

The ICO did feel like it was too late to roll back the use of fingerprint scanners in schools, but since Hong Kong's Data Protection Registrar banned school fingerprinting because he thought it was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, the UK's ICO will be under pressure to find a position in common with its cousin in the Chinese protectorate - not only does Hong Kong have similar laws, but data protection offices around the world like to harmonise their actions against the disproportionate use of technology.®

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