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Ireland pounces on school fingerprinters

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The Irish Information Commissioner's Office has come down on the notion of school fingerprinting and taken early action to prevent the technology being deployed arbitrarily.

It has told the first handful of Irish schools known to be establishing biometric systems that they ought to have a good reason for doing so and has said it will use its powers to order schools to rip out systems it considers excessive.

Assistant Information Commissioner Tony Delaney said he has written to seven schools suspected of fingerprinting children. Five were only considering it. Two had yet to state their case.

"I'm satisfied that a couple of schools have a system in place," said Delaney, though he would not name them.

In its guidance for schools issued this month, the office indicated that it might not approve of schools fingerprinting pupils. It said it wasn't necessary in Irish law for them to do so, and if it wasn't necessary then the Data Protection Act said it shouldn't be done.

"There are several long established and successful alternative methods of recording student attendance at schools which do not require the processing of a student's sensitive personal data," added the guidance, which took a similar stance to that of the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner.

"We wouldn't see it becoming the norm either in schools, workplaces or elsewhere. School attendance has been recorded manually in Ireland since the 19th century."

Delaney said he would ask schools "whether they have tried less invasive systems" of taking registration.

However, he was not dead set against school biometrics, merely concerned that they should not be employed without good reason. He would assess each school case by case, and require a school to perform a Privacy Impact Assessment.

According to the Sunday Times, a vast majority of parents had no qualms about the scheme after schools assured them it would only be used to track pupil attendance and that data would not used in criminal investigations or otherwise shared.

Elsewhere in the guidance, head teachers were told they should seek parental consent before fingerprinting any child below the age of 18, contrary to the position taken by the Information Commissioner in the UK, who s allowing schools to rely on children's consent if it thinks they are old enough to understand the implications themselves.

The Irish guidance also said schools must give pupils the means to opt out of a school biometric scheme at any time without fear of discrimination or denying them access to services.

Moreover, it stated that consent must be "obtained fairly". This might require Irish schools to give more impartial advice on deciding whether to use biometrics than that given to parents in some British schools.

British schools have used standard letters drafted by biometric systems suppliers to tell parents about their plans to install biometrics. These state why the school thinks biometrics are desirable and ask parents to raise any concerns they have about the technology with the head teacher.

Alisdair Darrock, managing director of Softlink, a supplier of biometric library systems for schools, promised nearly two months ago to draft more impartial advice that schools could send parents. He said yesterday he was still planning to do it. ®

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