Why Are British Schools Allowed to Fingerprint Children?

Collecting the biometric data of 11-year-olds is a very intrusive way to take a roll call.

|
03 december 2014, 6:00am

(Photo by Aviva West ​via)

​ In 2001, biometric technology was introduced to a number of schools in the UK, the US and Asia. The pretext was that recording students' fingerprints was a necessary means of keeping track of stuff like student registration, direct debit lunch payments and how many library books pupils were hoarding under their beds.

Of course, to the highly trained ear, this sounds a lot like bullshit. Presumably the systems that had been in place for this kind of stuff for at least a century beforehand still worked fine. And if even they didn't, there are far less invasive ways of keeping a register – like, you know, just keeping a register, or giving people Oyster-like touch cards – than recording a pupil's biometric information.

Another Big Problem with the introduction of biometrics is that many British school kids were being fingerprinted without the knowledge or consent of their parents.  The NGO Privacy International flagged this in 2002, ​warning that "finger printing for the purpose of library cards was in clear violation of the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act". 

Ten years later, ​the government ruled that schools must check with parents before taking fingerprints, but even that doesn't seem to have made much of a difference. At the beginning of this year, ​a report released by Big Brother Watch estimated that 1.28 million school kids in the UK had been fingerprinted, with only 69 percent of schools consulting parents before enrolling their children into a biometric system.

This is clearly a little problematic. Indoctrinating young people into believing that there's nothing wrong with readily handing over their personal information isn't the kind of message that should be conveyed to future generations. A couple of years ago, I probably would have viewed the practice as merely a vast waste of money, but  in the wake of the NSA and GCHQ revelations – without plunging too deep into the realm of lizard royalty and 9/11 truthers – it's hard not to worry about the potential implications this conditioning could have.

Then, of course, there's the more theoretical problem – the idea that the fingerprints you unwittingly gave away at school could be used against you in later life. Current legislation on biometrics in schools states that prints cannot be used to monitor, or pursue, suspected individuals. However, history has shown that legislation has a habit of changing.

The 2011 London riots are one example of how prominent events can be used by government as justification for new and potentially oppressive legislation. Following the riots, community sentences  ​were reformed to "make use of new technology to track offenders during their sentence to [...] help prevent criminals committing further offences".

Bearing that in mind, it's not difficult to imagine how another "crime against the state" – so widespread protests or rioting, essentially – might have the potential to justify legislative review.

Imagine a repeat of 2011: London is overrun by rioters, teenagers are smashing up estate agents and ransacking their local Tesco Metro for job lots of basmati rice. A newsreader's son is caught hurling a brick at a police car in Sydenham. It's complete fucking carnage.

Once the sun comes up on those two or three days of darkness, the government steps forward with a broad response statement, in all likelihood similar to the words  uttered by David Cameron in the summer of 2011: "This is criminality, pure and simple. It has to be confronted and defeated."

Having now informally criminalised all the protesters, the response strategy can be put in place. A statement is released that reads something along the lines of: "All resources available must be used to bring those responsible to justice." At this point, the fingerprints collected by a raft of British schools – the same that initially couldn't be used for population tagging – become part of a new and unprecedented power.

I'll admit that's all incredibly speculative, but it's not impossible – there have been  worse breaches of our privacy than that in very recent memory.

Aside from the hypotheticals, do you really want to live somewhere with an education system that (even inadvertently) encourages mindless submission to the state? Our personal freedoms are already eroded enough, and through complacency alone we're laying the groundwork for a society in which both corporate and state power surpasses the individual's ability to question it.

The only way to work towards reclaiming the liberty we've already lost is to make sure this issue becomes a priority. To ensure future generations of British children aren't led to believe that handing over their biometric information is as routine as receiving a school lunch.

In 2006, Hong Kong  ​was the first to ban the use of biometrics in schools, with an official calling it "excessive" and noting that there are much less intrusive ways of taking a roll call. The UK must follow suit.

More stuff about this kind of stuff:

​Are UK Nightclubs Breaking Data Laws By Storing Your IDs and Fingerprints?

​How to Stop Your Smartphone Getting You Arrested

​The Town Promising to Shoot Surveillance Drones Out of the Sky