ICO intervenes after schools use facial recognition for lunch payments

The Information Commissioner’s Office was just one of a number of concerned voices after nine schools in North Ayrshire introduced facial recognition systems to speed up canteen queues

A move to take payment for school lunches by using facial recognition systems has led to swift intervention by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The independent body for upholding information rights in the UK acted after nine schools in North Ayrshire introduced the face scanning technology yesterday (18 October).

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,” an ICO spokesperson told the Guardian.

“Organisations should consider using a different approach if the same goal can be achieved in a less intrusive manner. We are aware of the introduction and will be making inquiries with North Ayrshire council.”

The ICO has clear guidelines on how to ensure lawfulness, fairness, and transparency when utilising AI systems.

The schools in question claim that face scanning technology is faster and more Covid-secure than the card payments and fingerprint scanners they had previously been using. It works by having cameras check against encrypted faceprint templates, stored on servers at the schools.

No child should have to go through border-style identity checks just to get a school meal – Silkie Carlo, Big Brother Watch

Perhaps surprisingly, parental consent was not a prerequisite for pupils to begin using the facial recognition system.

“Pupils often forget their PINs 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,” North Ayrshire council told the Financial Times.

The move led to complaints from parents that their children may not have been given sufficient information before opting to use face scanning, while others suggested that peer pressure may have been at play.

CRB Cunninghams, suppliers of payment and identity management systems to education establishments, installed the technology in North Ayrshire.

“It’s the fastest way of recognising someone at the till — it’s faster than card, it’s faster than fingerprint,” David Swanston, MD of CRB Cunninghams, told the FT.

The average transaction time, he said, had been cut to five seconds per pupil.

“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.”

In related news: Study shows another annual increase in global internet surveillance

Sixty-five school sites have signed up to implement the system, claimed Swanston, following a pilot at Kingsmeadow Community school in Gateshead in the summer of 2020.

“No child should have to go through border-style identity checks just to get a school meal,” Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties campaign group, Big Brother Watch, told the Guardian in response to events in North Ayrshire. “We are supposed to live in a democracy, not a security state.

“This is highly sensitive, personal data that children should be taught to protect, not to give away on a whim. This biometrics company has refused to disclose who else children’s personal information could be shared with and there are some red flags here for us.”

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