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MP slams school biometric guidance

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An MP has attacked the government's biometrics advice to schools for failing to enshrine in law a parent's right to be consulted.

Lib Dems MP Greg Mulholland told the Commons on 23 July 2007 that the guidance failed to introduce a legal requirement for schools to acquire parental consent before collecting their child's biometric data.

The guidance, published on 23 July by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), outlines the data protection guidelines schools should follow when deploying biometric technology. It states that schools should be open and transparent on such matters but falls short of introducing a legal mandate to consult with parents.

Arguing for further clarity, Mulholland cited an online poll of 1,400 parents conducted last summer by civil liberties group, Leave them kids alone, which found that 94 per cent were against schools taking biometric data without parental consent.

He also raised concerns over the security of biometrics, saying that the view that fraudsters would not be able to replicate a fingerprint, owing to it being stored as a number rather than a fingerprint, was simply not accurate.

"Independent technology experts have stated that in their opinion it is impossible to say that data will remain secure," he said. "Advances in technology mean that it is inaccurate to say that it will not be possible to reverse-engineer the data stored in order to obtain the original fingerprint."

Mulholland continued to argue that swipe cards were "100 per cent accurate when passed over a reader", as opposed to fingerprint scanners that are only "93 per cent accurate" and considerably more expensive.

Concluding that the costs of introducing biometrics in schools fully outweighed the benefits, he said: "The collection of biometric data in our schools is unnecessary, intrusive and insecure. A can of worms has been opened and, as yet, the government has failed to adequately close it. The only way to achieve real clarity is for the government to say that schools must always ask parents for consent before taking biometric data from children."

Schools minister Jim Knight insisted that the technology was not "1984 by the backdoor". He stressed that pupils must be fully informed of the data collected and retained, and in cases where they did not understand, their parents must be informed.

Reiterating that it was not possible to recreate a fingerprint from the numbers that are stored, he pointed out that swipe cards could easily be lost, forgotten or swapped between pupils. But he accepted that such systems should give pupils whose parents opt them out of the system, the same access to school services that biometric users enjoy.

He added: "We have had some reassurance that the same sort of technology that might be used in the dining hall, the library or for attendance could be interchanged with the use of swipe cards."

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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