Biometric tech in schools: where is the red line?

Biometric tech in schools: where is the red line?

Most schools already have security cameras, databases containing students’ personal information and in some cases even security guards. Now, some schools are turning to biometric technology to monitor some of their students’ activities.

In the latest case, Churchlands Senior High School, located in Perth, plans to roll out biometric finger scanning on its students for library book withdrawals this year.

While the move has been questioned by one privacy group, the school says the technology is not invasive but rather designed to improve how staff workloads are managed.

The school’s library teacher, Sally Morris, told The Educator that the plan will be a win-win situation for the busy school.

“We have a large percentage of students who read print for both leisure and information and this, coupled with the other services we provided, meant we had to be smarter with the workloads of our staff,” she explained.

“More importantly, we wanted to be accountable for making sure the right resources – laptops included – were on the correct student borrowing record.”

Several years ago the school provided students with biometrics – a type of technology Morris said students “took in their stride”, enjoying the fun element of it as well as the speed at which it allowed them to borrow books.

The use of biometric technology in schools has been shown to serve other practical purposes. Other WA schools, such as Byford Secondary College and Atwell College, have already been using biometrics to monitor student attendance since 2014.

But in an age where technology is steadily becoming more ubiquitous, not everyone is convinced that biometric technologies are necessary.

Biometrics Institute privacy expert group chairman, Terry Aulich, told The West Australian that the move by Churchlands Senior High School was “overkill”.

“Do you really need, in a school, to have kids identify themselves by a finger scan or hand or facial geometry if they’re borrowing a library book? That is overkill,” he said.

However, Morris countered this claim by pointing out that the school’s parents and students have access to “clear information”, including the option of not using this method to borrow at all.

“Naturally there are going to be concerns, and as a parent myself of a high school student being safe online and security are questions I consider carefully,” she said. 

“At the end of the day, students can be assured that no personal data is stored with the number pattern on a local server.”

Morris added that parents could also be assured that students would be given the option, have clear information and be able to enjoy a service that was “already becoming more and more a part of students’ lives in today’s world”.

Biometrics can be murky legal territory for schools

Back in October, Roger Clarke, a board member at the Australian Privacy Foundation (APF), told The Educator that any Australian school using biometric technology may be in breach of the nation’s privacy laws.
“Which data protection statute, and which privacy principles, apply to a school varies depending on the system that it's part of. Generally, however, a school must justify the collection of personal data. And sensitive personal data requires considerably stronger justification,” he said.
“We've yet to see any evidence of any school providing such evidence, and hence we believe that any school that requires biometrics is in breach of the law.”

Acting Australian Information Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, told The West Australian that biometric identifiers were “inherently powerful” and could reveal a lot about a person.

“Schools should ask whether the collection of biometric data about their students is indeed reasonably necessary using a risk assessment tool like a privacy impact assessment,” he said.