Biometrics in schools: NOT a data protection issue

Biometrics in schools: NOT a data protection issue A recent report suggests that biometrics pose a significant data security risk for schools in the UK, but Dave Bulless feels the document fails to understand the nature of the technology. When a headline screams at you: Schools put pupils information at risk and goes on to say that a new study highlights biometrics to be a key area of concern, it’s fair to say that the security industry should sit up and take notice. The study in question, entitled ‘Identity and Biometrics Convenience at the Cost of Privacy in UK Schools was recently presented at the British Educational Research Establishment (BERA) Annual Conference by academics from East Anglia and Plymouth Universities.

The study warned that schools must be more cautious in their handling of personal data or face consequences including identity theft, parents wrongly being sent confidential information about someone else s child or, in the future, pupils biometric data being accessed by strangers. The problem is that, while the study correctly identifies that biometrics are becoming an increasingly used tool in schools and educational establishments, it fundamentally fails to understand the nature of the technology. Biometrics, such as hand readers, do not require any details about an individual other than their name.

Details of home address, bank account numbers or other personal information are not stored in any file or database. The measurements taken of an individual s hand are simply converted through a unique algorithm into a number, which is what is stored in the database. In fact, even if someone picked up the PC that the software is stored upon and walked off with it, it would offer up no personal information whatsoever.

Biometrics: used to solve problems Even if someone picked up the PC that the software is stored upon and walked off with it, it would offer up no personal information It must also be remembered that educational establishments will be using biometrics once individuals have pre-registered within schools and universities. The finger, palm, iris or face is then used merely to confirm the individual is who they say they are and genuinely does require access to a given building. What s more, biometrics could solve many of the problems that London Metropolitan University is currently facing in terms of the enrolment of foreign students.

The university is currently banned from being able to issue visas because student attendance is not being monitored, yet a simple biometric system would have given the university an auditable trail which would have satisfied the UK Border Agency. I’ve no doubt that there are data protection issues in many schools in relation to personal information, addresses and other confidential information from social services, for example. However, biometrics is not part of this problem and shouldn’t be lumped together with wider computer security issues.

The danger is that ill-informed studies such as the one presented at the BERA Conference will damage the confidence that educational establishments increasingly have for biometric technologies. My message is simple: biometrics are not the problem. In fact, in security terms biometrics are the answer.

Dave Bulless is an expert in biometrics at Ingersoll Rand Security Solutions


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