Friday, July 27, 2007

The fingerprinting of children in schools

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. I mention Leave Them Kids Alone. Action on Rights for Children is very good on this issue too.

Being fingered

A few months ago a Liberal Democrat press release announced: “Sarah Teather opposes school fingerprinting”. If you thought she meant messy art lessons, think again.

For, as Greg Mulholland told the Commons on Monday, 3,500 primary and secondary schools now use biometric data to run libraries and canteens. To this end, around 750,000 children have been fingerprinted.

Should we worry? Do we need this Mulholland campaign? (Call it a Mulholland drive if you prefer.)

Listening to Jim Knight, the minister who replied, the answer is no. Schools databases don’t store fingerprints. Technology turns each print into a number, and that is what is kept.

Visit and you find a different story. The databases store 300 bytes of data that form a map of each child's fingerprint. So you can see the danger that children’s data will be stolen or haunt them years later.

On the day of Greg’s debate, the government announced guidelines for schools. They say prints should only be used for the declared purpose, must not be passed to anyone and should be destroyed when the child leaves the school.

But they are silent on parental consent. Many of the 3,500 schools took prints without consent. Children as young as five have had their dabs taken on the pretext of a game of spies.

Given how efficient children are at losing things like swipe cards, you can see the attraction of using fingerprints. But we should not encourage schools to do so, despite the pressures from industry. (There millions to be made from kiddyprinting.)

Defending the fingerprinting of his pupils, one Yorkshire headteacher said: "All the measures to do with ID cards will possibly invade their privacy even further … and I would see us as getting them ready for the world in which they will have to live."

In much the same spirit schoolmasters used to say “You’ll thank me for this one day, Tompkins,” while reaching for a favourite cane.

It is easy to conclude that fingerprinting is the future and we are powerless to resist it. Labour makes just this mindless equation between that computers and modernisation. But if we do not use the institutions of government to shape society as we want it to develop, what is the point of politics?

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