A high-tech tool that makes lunch lines move faster is raising concerns about student privacy rights.
Fingerprint scans are popping up in schools across the country, prompting one Mesa lawmaker to seek to limit their use in Arizona.
“I certainly wouldn’t want my children to be fingerprinted or have an iris scan or anything like that,” said Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, “We’ve lived many years without doing this. Now this seems to be the thing everyone is doing, thinking they’re making themselves safe or for efficiency, and, by golly, it’s not right. And it’s a huge moneymaker for these companies that are producing the equipment and the scanners for all this.”
In recent years, schools across the country have started using technology that allows students to pay for their lunches with the swipe of their fingerprint.
It replaces previous programs that required identification cards, debit cards or cash, which cafeteria managers say can slow the lines down.
But that’s not a good enough reason for Johnson.
“They’re collecting data that can easily be hacked into, information that could be gotten by people that are not worthy of having it,” Johnson said.
“And you know, privacy is more important to me than efficiency. It seems that we worship this god of efficiency, and I think that it’s getting way out of bounds.”
So Johnson is drafting legislation that would either require parental consent for the technology or simply ban school biometrics — which can include fingerprinting and voice and facial recognition.
Recently, Shirley Wallace said she was upset to learn that her children were fingerprinted, without her consent, at their south Phoenix charter school.
“I overheard my children talking about being fingerprinted, and they told me all the children had been fingerprinted and every day have to have their fingers scanned to receive the lunches or breakfasts,” said Wallace, whose children attend Esperanza Montessori Academy.
“I was kind of upset they didn’t ask for any permission from the parents.”
The school allowed her to opt out, she said, but now she’s worried about what will happen to that information.
“They violated my children’s rights to privacy,” she said.
The school did not return calls for comment.
School districts in the East Valley said they don’t use biometrics at school.
“If there is fingerprinting at a school event, the parents keep the prints,” said Kathy Bareiss, spokeswoman for the Mesa Unified School District.
Yet biometrics aren’t new to other Arizona schools.
In 2003, the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union fought against the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix over its plans to install a facial-recognition video system at a middle school.
And in 2006, a school in Williams announced in a newsletter that it would use fingerprint scanning to streamline its lunch operations, but a parent objected, and the plans never got off the ground.
Michigan and Iowa have passed laws that basically bar schools from taking electronic fingerprints of children, and in August, an Illinois law went into effect that requires schools to get parental permission before taking and storing an image of children’s fingerprints.
Joy Robinson-Van Gilder, a mother of five in tiny Earlville, Ill., was the force behind the ban in her home state.
When she enrolled her son in public school a couple of years ago, she said she told the office she wanted to opt out of their fingerprint-scanning lunch program.
“A month later, they scanned my 7-year-old. ... I was livid,” she said. “It isn’t secure. If hackers can hack into our government, then you’re telling me a little town is going to be secure with this child’s information? These are minors, and by the time they get older and try to buy a house, who’s to say they won’t have a list of credit cards or a home already that’s been foreclosed on?”
When Robinson-Van Gilder felt the school district wasn’t listening to her, she started working with legislators to pass parental-consent legislation last year.
Now, she says she’s hoping enough momentum will build across the country that she can fight for a federal law that bans the practice.