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Will the introduction of facial recognition in UK schools normalise biometric surveillance?

Scanning the faces of pupils in school canteens is proof that facial recognition tech has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.

Facial recognition will now be used to verify school children’s meal payments in nine schools in the United Kingdom, according to a report in The Verge. The schools, based in North Ayrshire in Scotland, reasoned that technology is faster and more COVID-secure than using cards or fingerprint scanners for payments, the report added.

An FAQ page from the website of the North Ayrshire government explains that the move is not compulsory and parents can use PIN alternatively for verification. They were also informed that the data of their kid will be deleted when they leave the school. It also explains to readers that the data will be stored in an “encrypted (using AES 256) string of characters known as a template”.

North Ayrshire council informed Financial Times that 97 percent of children or their parents had given consent for the new system. FT added that some parents were unsure whether their children had enough information to make a decision and insinuated that peer pressure might have played a role. Pilots of the system began in 2020 and 65 more schools have signed up for the programme, revealed David Swanston of CRB Cunninghams – the firm behind the FRT systems. 

Facial recognition technology has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, giving rise to concerns on privacy and misuse of sensitive data. The move may end up normalising biometric surveillance at a time when data security is meagre in most countries where privacy laws are still in the making.   

Intervention by ICO

The Information Commissioner’s Office will be examining the concerns raised over the use of facial recognition technology according to The GuardianThe ICO is an independent body that is expected to uphold information rights in the UK. The body will contact the North Ayrshire council about the move and urge a “less intrusive” approach where possible.

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An ICO spokesperson said organisations using facial recognition technology must comply with the data protection law at all times around its deployment.

“Data protection law provides additional protections for children, and organisations need to carefully consider the necessity and proportionality of collecting biometric data before they do so,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying.

A look at facial recognition technology in educational institutes 

The introduction of facial recognition in educational institutes has not gone down well in recent memory. Some of the instances: 

New York: It was declared that public and private schools in New York state cannot use facial recognition systems at their premises for at least a year and a half, as Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation banning their use in December last year. The legislation placed a moratorium on schools purchasing and using biometric identifying technology until at least July 1, 2022, or until the completion of a study documenting whether the tech’s use is appropriate in schools.

Sweden: The Skelleftea municipality was fined 200,000 Swedish Krona ($20,700) by the Swedish Data Protection Authority (DPA) for flouting a privacy law under the General Data Protection Regulation. The municipality’s trial run involved tracking 22 students over three weeks and detecting when each pupil entered a classroom. GDPR classifies facial images and other biometric information as being a special category of data, with added restrictions on its use.

India: The National Testing Agency (NTA) which conducts the country’s major entrance examinations will be deploying facial recognition technology along with other biometrics for verification of candidates giving the tests online. “Time will tell how effective these standards and best practices prove to be in maintenance of strict privacy and confidentiality of the data to which the successful bidder of this tender will gain access,” said Amay Jain, Associate at Victoriam Legalis, at the time.

Maharashtra: The Punyalok Ahilyadevi Holkar Solapur University in Solapur, Maharashtra was looking to introduce facial recognition-based attendance system for its 300 employees, according to tender documents reviewed by MediaNama earlier this year. This follows the trend of several government institutions adopting facial recognition systems for attendance purposes in order to avoid contact-based mechanisms due to COVID-19.

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