Privacy fears as schools use facial recognition to speed up lunch queue

Asia's Tech News Daily

Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

Privacy campaigners have raised concerns about the use of facial recognition technology on pupils queueing for lunch in school canteens in the UK.

Nine schools in North Ayrshire began taking payments for school lunches this week by scanning the faces of their pupils, according to a report in the Financial Times. More schools are expected to follow.

The company supplying the technology claimed it was more Covid-secure than other systems, as it was cashless and contactless, and sped up the lunch queue, cutting the time spent on each transaction to five seconds.

With break times shortening, schools are under pressure to get large numbers of students through lunch more quickly.

The use of other types of biometric systems, principally fingerprint scanners, have been used in schools in the UK for years, but campaigners say the use of facial recognition technology is unnecessary.

Silkie Carlom, the director of the campaign group Big Brother Watch, told the FT: “It’s normalising biometric identity checks for something that is mundane. You don’t need to resort to airport style [technology] for children getting their lunch.”

Fraser Sampson, the biometrics commissioner for England and Wales, was also quoted as saying that just because schools could use the technology it did not mean they should. “If there is a less intrusive way, that should be used,” he said.

The technology is being installed in schools in the UK by a company called CRB Cunninghams. David Swanston, its managing director, told the FT: “It’s the fastest way of recognising someone at the till – it’s faster than card, it’s faster than fingerprint.

“In a secondary school you have around about a 25-minute period to serve potentially 1,000 pupils. So we need fast throughput at the point of sale.”

Live facial recognition, technology that scans through crowds to identify faces, has been challenged by civil rights campaigners because of concerns about consent. CRB Cunninghams said the system being installed in UK schools was different – parents had to give explicit consent and cameras check against encrypted faceprint templates stored on school servers.

Schools leaders keen to improve efficiency were not averse to new technology, but there remained concerns about privacy and data protection, said Hayley Dunn, a business leadership specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

“Schools and colleges are adept at harnessing new technology to solve logistical issues like taking payments from young people in their canteens and many are already using fingerprint readers to improve queueing times and provide increased security,” she said.

“The use of face recognition software to do this could potentially interest schools and colleges, but there would need to be strict privacy and data protection controls on any companies offering this technology.

“Leaders would also have legitimate concerns about the potential for cyber ransomware attacks and the importance of storing information securely, which they would need reassurances around before implementing any new technology.”

North Ayrshire council told the FT 97% of children or their parents had given consent for the new system.

“Pupils often forget their pin number and unfortunately some have also been the victim of pin fraud, so they are supportive of the planned developments and appreciate the benefits to them,” the council added.

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