Why biometrics are essential in schools: The lunch line
The Florida legislature’s near unanimous vote to ban all biometrics in all schools is one of the most blatant acts of failure to conduct due diligence on behalf of a constituency I have ever seen, and I have worked in Congress twice. In school districts across the United States – in California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and West Virginia, for example – fingerprint, vein and palm scanners in cafeterias are driving better school experiences, lowering fraud and costs, and creating greater accountability for schools. These biometric products are helping assure that increasingly scant federal and state dollars are well spent in an era when a bad economy means US poverty is rising and more kids are on free and reduced lunches. Not only that, but biometrics provide safe lock on identity while the ID cards or PIN numbers used in most lunch lines are lost and stolen constantly, creating a steady stream of potential and actual identity theft.
Yet the main proponent of the biometric ban bill now sitting on the Florida Governor’s desk, Sen. Dorothy Hukill, contended during debate that all biometrics should be banned even if parents are required to give consent, claiming that biometrics can lead to identity theft. In an April 2014 Regarding ID podcast, excerpts from the Florida hearing had Senator Jack Latvala leading Hukill through a series of questions to establish her point. However, she could not.
Hukill admits she does not know how biometric data can lead to identity theft, cannot provide examples of biometric hacking in retail banking scenarios, and equates website and retail identity hacking (which is a legitimate concern) as a parallel to the palm, vein or fingerprint biometric data (which yield no useful information if hacked):
LATVALA: Let’s focus on the machines that you use in the lunch lines where kids scan their hand across the machine and it takes money out of their account. Would you explain to me exactly how that can lead to identity theft?
HUKILL: Well, just like any other information can be compromised, stolen or misused, that information can be collected, can be stored. I mean I’m obviously not a scientist. I can’t tell you exactly how that happens, but it can be stored and it can be then used inappropriately or stolen. The whole idea is – there is absolutely no guarantee, and especially as we read about every single day, I mean the most secure government websites from the federal government on down are compromised. Secure retail websites are compromised, so these kind of things can be compromised whether it’s a fingerprint, a palm scan, an iris scan.
LATVALA: Can you give me a single example of an experience or any evidence that you have of someone having to give their palm for a credit card or a bank account?
HUKILL: I mean, I haven’t but I believe that people have told me that their bank is actually taking a fingerprint. I’m not sure, I can’t give you an exact – I can’t give you a person.
If that was not bad enough, Hukill ignored the subject matter experts – her own school lunch operators – who tried to explain that her concerns about data breach and parents’ lack of support were unfounded. The podcast continues:
The lunch line palm scanners have been working well in a school district near Tampa. Barbara Dalesandro is a food service technology coordinator for the Pinellas county school board. She explained to Senator Andy Gardiner that the system is secure and it has saved the district a lot of money by preventing fraud. “It’s in a locked facility that’s only accessed by very few people in our district; high levels of security. It has two forms of authentication to get in the server.
GARDNER: My question really deals more with when the child puts a hand – it’s amazing we’ve even come to these type of conversations to be quite honest but – so the child puts his hand on, his veins are read, do you in any way track what that child purchases to eat?
DA: No we do not. We only use it to sell food and to secure their money. When we had cards and PIN numbers, there was constant fraud. The accounts were always drained by other students. There was a significant loss of revenue in that regard. We’ve been using palm scanning for four years with no problems from our parents. And we used a finger image I believe two years prior to that. It just wasn’t as good of a system as what we have now.” Dalesandro says the biometric data is purged as students graduate or withdraw from the district. It’s also destroyed upon a parent’s request, and the information is not shared with other entities.
Interestingly, all the reporters that have called me on this story have mentioned that despite Sen. Hukill’s big win on this issue, she is refusing repeated requests for interviews. She did so for the podcast as well.
According to the School Nutrition Association, the National School Lunch Program serves over 30 million children per day. The Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General’s office found in a January 2013 report that just for needy kids in Colorado in free lunch and reduced lunch programs, over $2.2 million was wasted in poor management from 2009 to 2012. According a January 2014 story on the audit in The Denver Post, the Colorado program has “397,167 students on free lunches, an increase of 29 percent since 2008. Another 61,132 students received reduced-price lunches, an increase of 6 percent in five years. Auditors’ recommendations included tighter management, tougher monitoring and consistent enforcement on schools that run their programs improperly, as well as better training for staff and a stronger focus on maximizing available federal money.”
There is no excuse to ban excellent technology, and its future potential as well, when lunch line fraud is well known, school budgets are being slashed, and public policy supports healthier (but more expensive) lunches served. Public servants should spend a little more time getting schooled themselves on the value biometrics bring to the lunch table before banning the technology altogether from schools. Maybe there should be a minimum educational requirement for public servants before passing legislation. I wonder how that vote would go down.
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