Biometrics in K-12: Vendor Claims and Your Business Plan

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See for Yourself

Food Service Solutions Inc. uses Sagem Morpho's biometric scanner in its cafeteria point of sale, POSitive ID System. See biometric scanning for vendor claims.

Even the good guys can find a way in. You think biometrics are secure? See how the Myth Busters for Discovery channel debunked the claim that fingerprints are a secure way to prevent entry into locked areas.
--P. Deubel

My own quest for The Truth about Biometric Devices in Schools (Johns, March 27, 2007) led to this three-part series on biometrics in K-12. It's a controversial topic, not just in the United States, but in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, which has its own concerned citizens fighting to ban fingerprinting of children in schools (e.g., LeaveThemKidsAlone.com). My premise has been that before you decide to ban its use or buy into biometrics, you need to have an understanding of the technology itself and applications available (Part 1), knowledge of key issues and concerns that have been raised (Part 2), a keen eye for vendor claims, and then a sound business plan of action that leads to a security solution you really need. In this final installment in this three-part series, we'll take a look at vendor claims and the need for a sound business plan.

Vendor Claims
Vendors will tell you biometric systems eliminate the need to worry about lost or stolen or forgotten ID cards, passwords, and PIN numbers. Biometric readers can speed up lunch lines, make attendance taking easier and more accurate, and secure entry, computer access, and other school services. They should be preferred over systems based on PINs or cards or passwords because a biometric is associated with only one person and is always available. I would not be swayed by those claims.

No system is without errors, and no system is 100 percent fool-proof. Every school must weigh the cost of biometrics and alternatives versus benefits from each. The key word in speeding up any process is automation. A technology system with good networked or stand-alone software that eliminates or reduces the paper trail or the need to handle cash on every transaction will certainly speed up the cafeteria line or attendance taking process, for example. Non-biometrics can secure access, as well. To test some of those vendor claims and to see what some schools are doing, I spoke with key personnel in two districts in Ohio (personal communications, March 29, 2007).

Sixteen-year veteran Manager of Food Services for Mansfield City Schools, a mid-sized urban district of over 5000 students, said the district began using software and a card reader system several years ago to monitor its lunch program. As others have found; students forgot or lost cards; the cards deteriorated over time; barcodes on cards became unreliable; and sometimes information on the card was incorrect. The district had been approached about implementing fingerprint readers but opted out because of the added expense. The district now successfully uses PINs and point of sale software, Café Enterprise, at six of its schools.

The schools have 11 computer systems for the cafeterias, each equipped with a touch-screen monitor to help the cashier speed up data entry and access and a PIN pad where students enter their five-digit PIN number after they select their food. Students tend to remember the number because it is the same ID number they use for other student services, such as the library and computer access. Even when they forget, the cashier can use the keyboard to access their name in the system. The lunch lines do move more quickly than in the past because the cashier no longer needs to look up the name of a student on a printed list to determine who is eligible for free or reduced lunch prices. The software also helps protect anonymity of those same students because it accommodates any students who have prepaid debit accounts for lunch or other things they can buy at school. When students enter their PIN, their picture comes up so that the cashier can verify the account, adding that level of security.

If you do opt to use biometrics, be prepared to have an alternative non-biometric security system available. Bucyrus City Schools does just that in their food service program, which uses LunchBox software to accommodate about 1,000 students at their high school and middle school. They use Indentifi fingerprint readers from IdentiMetrics to complement their PIN pad system. The district's general manager of food services stated that the PIN system was working for them, but at least one administrator believed a fingerprinting system would enable them to have one less cashier by eliminating the use of cash and might move along lunch lines even faster than with PINs. They opted for both when parents objected to taking fingerprints for religious reasons, and some just did not want any fingerprint data stored. High school students wanted to pay for their lunch in cash. Some were concerned that the information might eventually be used by police.

The main point is that Bucyrus district's General Manager tested the vendor claim that using fingerprint readers can speed up lunch lines. She found no real difference when compared to using the PIN pad. The time to take the print and verify the individual might actually have been longer than the PIN pad, which read and verified identity almost immediately. Their fingerprint readers do not always pick up the fingerprint, and the fingerprinting software does not always activate when the system is launched, requiring a reboot. However, there are similar issues with the PIN pads.

Enrolling individuals initially was time-consuming, particularly when students or staff had hot, sweaty, dirty, dry, or even too-clean fingers. Sometimes prints could not be captured at all, and despite the product claim for fast capture, the district has had cases taking up to five minutes, and still gave up, asking those students to try again on another day. For an added level of security, when students transfer to another school in the district they must be reenrolled in the system, as fingerprint data reside only in the building of use.

Consider claims for attendance. For most of my years as a secondary educator, the attendance office distributed printed attendance sheets as soon as possible from attendance data collected during the first class of the day. The sheets might not have been accurate, and teachers wrote "cut slips" every class period for students who did not appear in class and should have been there. Automation helped speed up the process when the district began using IBM punch cards. Yes, that's a way back. If you use a biometric reader for period by period attendance, you won't necessarily save time because the teacher still must double-check that attendance is correctly noted; he or she is ultimately responsible. A teacher who uses networked attendance software that is password-protected can call up the roster from a classroom workstation and just as easily use a mouse to mark those present on time or present but late. This also ensures accuracy, saves time over a system relying on paper, and is less expensive than coupling the system with the biometric. While the cost of a fingerprint reader is not prohibitive, about $90 to $100 each (Kiernan, 2005), it quickly adds up for a large school that might have 100 classrooms, as each must be equipped with a reader. Readers might only last a couple of years before replacements are needed.

Building security might not be improved over what you currently do either to justify the cost of a biometric solution. If you use a biometric system to capture a fingerprint when a student enters a selected door in the morning, the student can still leave the building through another door before attending any classes, and you won't know unless the biometric is also used to activate a door's opening when exiting. You'd still need good locks, metal detectors, alternative non-biometric ways to enter/exit a building, back-up plans for when the power is out, surveillance cameras inside and outside of the building, ways to detect the presence of illegal substances and weapons, and so on. The 'bad guys' can always find a way in.

Before You Buy
Even before a vendor steps in your door to pitch a biometric solution, develop a good business plan to justify the expenditure. Then stick with it. Include the reason for the project, objectives, benefits, costs, and what happens if you do nothing. Look at alternatives that might equally address the problem you are trying to solve. Consider costs for hardware, software, maintenance, training, personnel, and the impact on what you currently do for both the biometric solution and alternatives. Then look for a vendor who can meet your specifications. In the long run, without your plan, you might have cause to worry (UK Biometrics Working Group, 2002).

You need to consider those for whom a particular biometric might not work, such as those with disabilities, and how you will handle those exceptions. Accessibility is an issue for all, so the placement of those devices must also be considered in your plan. You need a vendor with a good track record. If needed, hire a security specialist who might better take an objective view of the security level you really need. This individual might bring up points you might not have considered.

Get an understanding of the technology, including the intricacies of how it works. Know the issues, the legalities, and how relevant legislation will impact your implementation, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and local building codes. In case you missed part 2, Illinois in its SB1702 and Iowa in its Senate File 2086 are legislating use of biometrics in schools. Look at the experiences of other schools that have implemented a biometric or alternative product that you are considering. Plan a visit to test it. Before buying, test it in your own setting with representative users. Meet with parents, students, staff, and representatives of the community for their concerns, and have resources at hand to show them how the technology works and to help overcome any skepticism they might have.

Conclusion
Vendors will continue to make headway in sales of biometric solutions to schools and will be armed with their product claims. Returning to the important questions, "Should you ban or buy into biometrics? Do you require a reliable biometric, or is it just something that would be nice to have?" Only your district can really answer that. Hopefully, this investigation has provided you information and tools to help. Biometrics can be your friend, but in the wrong hands or if used carelessly, your foe. Biometrics are so new that they have not been sufficiently tested in the courts. Maybe for schools, decisions regarding use will ultimately rest on those tight budgets and a philosophy, "If it's not broken, don't fix it," which translates to, "If other solutions have been working for you, continue to use them--at least in the near future."

Resources:

References:

Johns, M. (2007, March 27). The Truth about Biometric Devices in Schools. Retrieved March 28, 2007, from PRWeb Press Release Newswire

Kiernan, V. (2005, December 2). Show your hand, not your ID. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 52(15), A28-A30. Retrieved April 4, 2007

UK Biometrics Working Group (2002, March). Biometrics for identification and authentication--advice on product selection. Retrieved April 4, 2007

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About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education, and is currently an adjunct faculty member in the graduate School of Education at Capella University and an education consultant. She is also the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.

Have any additional questions? Want to share your story? Want to pass along a news tip? Contact Dave Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

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