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Why schools should abandon biometrics

By Mal Fletcher - posted Tuesday, 9 April 2013

'Friends don't spy,' wrote Stephen King, 'true friendship is about privacy, too.'

According to news reports yesterday, pupils at a leading independent British prep school are being finger-printed as part of a new payment system for the school dining room. This has reportedly happened without the specific consent of parents.

Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' school took its pupils out of lessons to have their thumbprints recorded. In future, students will press their thumbs against an electronic scanner each time they buy lunch or a snack. The price will be charged to their account.


Parents have complained that they knew nothing about the procedure. The school claims that many other schools have already taken the biometric route when it comes to student data.

The issue of parental consent is, of course, a hugely important one. Parents should bear the ultimate responsibility for deciding on appropriate levels of privacy for their children. How else are they to be held responsible if their children fail to respect the privacy of others?

In the case of schools fingerprinting or using other biometric data, however, there is another issue of equal concern. By extracting biometric information from its young charges, the school is encouraging them to believe that surrendering such information is a normal part of life.

This is an especially important issue in the age of cyber-bullying, easy access to online pornography and the increasing use of data-mining tools by marketers eager to pitch products to the young.

Twenty-five percent of British young people, aged 16-25, say that they are 'addicted' to their mobile phones. They also admit to feeling 'separation anxiety' when their phones are removed.

For the young, this dependency on phones - particularly smart phones - means that the online experience plays an important role in establishing personal identity.


Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook, famously said, 'Privacy is dead - get over it.' His statement sounds shocking to many, yet it reflects the mindset of many of his peers and, perhaps more so, the next generation.

The younger end of the Millennial generation and the generation following them (Gen Z?) both appear more relaxed than older cohorts when it comes to yielding personal information online. In the process, they often overlook the fact that strangers can access this information.

They also forget that what goes digital usually stays digital - either because we simply forget to remove it or, more often, because you can't completely expunge a digital echo.

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About the Author

Mal Fletcher is a media social futurist and commentator, keynote speaker, author, business leadership consultant and broadcaster currently based in London. He holds joint Australian and British citizenship.

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