Info Commissioner: Too late to stop school fingerprinting
Not that we really tried in the first place
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.
The ICO said in a statement that it expected schools to be sensible about it - for example, by keeping only minimal information about the children and deleting it once they leave the school.
And that is that, according to the Data Protection Act, aside from advising schools about "good practice", Smith told The Register.
"Rather than revisit that question we should look at how they should be used proportionally," he said.
Interestingly, Hong Kong's Data Protection Registrar told The Register in November that it was a lack of proportionality that made him order a school to rip out its fingerprint system. Why take a child's fingerprints when you can just take their name, he asked.
He doubted whether many other schools would now attempt to fingerprint their children, and perhaps the same might have happened in the UK had the ICO taken a similar approach.
Yet the ICO's interpretation of proportionality is slightly more subtle. It is not concerned whether someone is using a biometric sledge hammer to crack a nut.
"There is something in that argument", said Smith of the Hong Kong ruling. "But I'm not sure how much. If fingerprint systems operated in the same way as the police fingerprint record, there might be a problem. But if they are not stored in the same way, it is much more likely to be proportionate," he said.
There is a growing assumption that the horse has already bolted, not just for school fingerprinting but for all types of biometric detection devices.
The technology is here, and getting smaller, faster, and inevitably closer to economies of scale. How safe will your DNA be when you can buy a gene-test kit in Boots for a fiver?
Privacy officials, meanwhile, are starting to worry about nanotechnology.
Taken to the logical extreme, this trend might engender the fatalistic view proposed by the likes of Polar Rose, which is that you might as well part your kimono because everyone's going to know what's under it anyway.
Yet the campaigners against human fingerprinting talk of such things as "human rights" trumping rampant technological evolution as though they still lived in ye timid olde world.
"I don't think anything is inevitable in a democracy. It's only inevitable if there's apathy," said Clouter before his trip to Westminster. "I'm in favour of a DNA database of criminals, but to fingerprint everyone, to take DNA from the entire population brands us all as criminals."
On the other side of the debate, should the government humour us, we might hear some more from people like Chris Bridge, head teacher at Huntington Secondary School, who told the York Press last week that to have their biometrics swiped at a young age prepared children for a world where they would have to relinquish their personal privacy in exchange for security against terrorists.
"All the measures to do with ID cards will possibly invade their privacy even further, but the world has no answer to terrorism without using these things and I would see us as getting them ready for the world in which they will have to live," he said. ®