In recent years, biometrics such as fingerprint scanners have become a staple in the school lunch hall, and there are a number of reasons that have driven this adoption.
For one, biometrics provide a simpler, faster means for children to purchase their meals - there’s no need to handle cash, and it means that children on Free School Meals are treated no differently, removing the possibility of stigmatisation.
For another, funds are added onto an online account that can be monitored by parents to ensure children are using their lunch money as it was intended.
And perhaps most importantly, as fingerprint scanners give way to facial recognition, these are systems that many people are already familiar with; many smartphones and applications, such as banking apps, already use this technology.
All good reasons for adoption… but how safe are these systems really?
Back in 2012, as the use of biometric data became more prevalent in schools, the government published guidance on how schools should use biometric information.
In essence, schools must destroy data when pupils leave school and not share biometric information. They also need to get written parental consent to record and store this data, as well as providing an option for the pupil themselves to refuse, whether this is during setup, or after a period of use.
The core issue here is identity management and security.
For instance, if a hacker breaches the cloud-based databases that hold pupils’ biometric information, they could potentially steal it. What’s more, this has already been identified as a growing issue.
Biometrics reveal part of a user’s identity - meaning stealing them could allow someone to falsify documents.
Crucially, the damage this causes can be far more extensive than with card theft. Once the information is out there, it’s out there; you can’t simply replace physical identifiers once they’re stolen.
Fingerprints are a permanent form of identification. If someone has copied your fingerprint or the iris of your eye, you cannot apply for a new one.
There have long been fears that the use of biometrics in schools is normalising surveillance, and while schools may follow privacy procedures strictly, there is also the potential risk of someone gaining unauthorised access to this data.
Schools using biometric systems may find themselves fielding more and more questions and concerns from parents about the ethics of using biometric data in this way.
In fact, some may be unhappy with the basic principle of taking a child’s fingerprint in this way.
And should the school make changes to how it operates these systems, for example, moving from fingerprints to facial recognition, without notifying parents, this is likely to cause breaches in trust.
The same goes for the increasing move to cloud-based systems by schools; many parents are not comfortable with the idea that their child’s information is held on a database away from the school premises. Neither of these points solve the underlying issue; the system still relies upon sensitive, biometric data.
Cashless catering requires more than technology to run effectively. It also needs the goodwill of parents. Without this, the risk for schools is that they lose the trust of parents and the whole process of managing school meals becomes more fraught and costly.
The above reasons are enough to make anyone consider whether the benefits of biometrics really do outweigh the risk. And we’ve yet to consider the hygiene implications…
It’s a mark of how much the pandemic has changed mindsets in schools that the main concern about biometrics in schools is now pupils’ health. In fact, in response to the pandemic, School Food Plan Alliance released a hygiene checklist that indicated fingerprint scanners should only be used as a last resort.
This isn’t just limited to COVID-19, either. Keeping up hygiene levels in schools can sometimes feel like a tough battle, with hundreds of kids to look after in common areas, with just as many surfaces (at least!) to consider.
Why then introduce another?
Many viruses can be passed from person-to-person through direct contact with contaminated surfaces, and these viruses can survive for hours, if not days, depending upon the type of surface it lands on.
Therefore, an uncleaned fingerprint reader could easily be a source of contamination. By its very design, it’s a surface that is directly touched by each and every child in your school - making it a significant hygiene risk.
One answer is to sanitise, but cleaning the fingerprint scanner after each go is going to slow down the whole process and potentially increase queues.
Of course, you could try and make sure pupils sanitise their hands thoroughly before using the reader, but then you run the risk that this will stop the reader working effectively the first time, leading to repeat attempts, and more delay.
You can enjoy the same benefits you get with using biometrics for school catering, with a system that uses QR codes, and offers excellent payment flexibility via card and contactless payments.
Till is this solution; Pebble’s point of sale system that streamlines your cashless catering and enables you to monitor free school meal balances and underspend, ensuring no one misses out.
This provides you with an advanced, integrated payment method, with none of the potential Covid-associated risks you get with biometrics.
To find out more about Till and our range of technical solutions for managing your school’s finances, please contact us today.
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