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Scottish schools serve up facial recognition for school dinners

COVID, quicker payments and better security are all cited as reasons for ditching cards and fingerprints in favour of the new system

Nine schools in Ayrshire, South West Scotland, have rolled out facial recognition technology to take payments for school lunches.

While North Ayrshire Council has been taking payments for lunches using biometrics already, this has been limited to fingerprint scanners. It argues, however, that using facial recognition is faster and more COVID-secure than previous systems it had in place.

The technology is somewhat different to the controversial “live” facial recognition systems used to identify people in a crowd, and instead matches children’s faces against encrypted faceprint templates that are stored on local servers.

In a statement provided to IT Pro, North Ayrshire Council said the system, which has been brought in to replace existing contracts that are expiring, offset the opportunity to make its food service more efficient and “enhances the pupil experience using innovative technology”.

With regards to data security and privacy, the council said: “In keeping with the ICO UK GDPR guidance, pupils in S4-S6 (aged 14-18) have been allowed to provide their own consent, while pupils in S1-S3 (aged 11-15) require parental consent.”

The council declined, however, to answer questions on how it would handle subject access requests and the ‘right to be forgotten’ as set out under GDPR.

Overall, the introduction of the system seems to have been well received. The council spokesperson said: “We have received an excellent response from pupils, parents and carers, with over 97% of responses being positive and providing consent. Pupils often forget their PINs and unfortunately some have been the victim of PIN fraud, so they are supportive of the planned developments and appreciate the benefits to them.”

According to the Financial Times, however, some parents of older pupils at the schools said they’re unsure whether their children had received enough information to make an informed decision and expressed concern that peer pressure may have played a role in them signing up.

Privacy advocacy group Big Brother Watch, which campaigns against the use of mass surveillance technology, has also hit out against the move. The organisation’s director, Silkie Carlo, said: “It’s normalising biometric identity checks for something that is mundane. You don’t need to normalise airport style [technology] for children getting their lunch.”

David Swanston, CEO of the company that provides the technology, CRB Cunninghams, has spoken out to defend the company’s product, telling the FT: “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.”

Swanston added: “[This is] the fastest way of recognising someone at the till – it’s faster than card, it’s faster than fingerprint.”

These nine schools in Ayrshire may also prove to be just the tip of the iceberg for this technology, with Swanston claiming a total of 65 school sites have signed up so far to use the technology.

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