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ICO to step in after schools use facial recognition to speed up lunch queue

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP</span>
Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

The Information Commissioner’s Office is to intervene over concerns about the use of facial recognition technology on pupils queueing for lunch in school canteens in the UK.

Nine schools in North Ayrshire began taking payments for school lunches this week by scanning the faces of their pupils, according to a report in the Financial Times. More schools are expected to follow.

The ICO, an independent body set up to uphold information rights in the UK, said it would be contacting North Ayrshire council about the move and urged a “less intrusive” approach where possible.

An ICO spokesperson said organisations using facial recognition technology must comply with data protection law before, during and after its use, adding: “Data protection law provides additional protections for children, and organisations need to carefully consider the necessity and proportionality of collecting biometric data before they do so.

“Organisations should consider using a different approach if the same goal can be achieved in a less intrusive manner. We are aware of the introduction, and will be making inquiries with North Ayrshire council.”

The company supplying the technology claimed it was more Covid-secure than other systems, as it was cashless and contactless, and sped up the lunch queue, cutting the time spent on each transaction to five seconds.

Other types of biometric systems, principally fingerprint scanners, have been used in schools in the UK for years, but campaigners say the use of facial recognition technology is unnecessary.

Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, told the Guardian the campaign group had written to schools using facial recognition systems, setting out their concerns and urging them to stop immediately.

“No child should have to go through border-style identity checks just to get a school meal,” she said. “We are supposed to live in a democracy, not a security state.

Related: NHS app storing facial verification data via contract with firm linked to Tory donors

“This is highly sensitive, personal data that children should be taught to protect, not to give away on a whim. This biometrics company has refused to disclose who else children’s personal information could be shared with and there are some red flags here for us.”

The technology is being installed in schools in the UK by a company called CRB Cunninghams. David Swanston, its managing director, told the FT: “It’s the fastest way of recognising someone at the till. In a secondary school you have around about a 25-minute period to serve potentially 1,000 pupils. So we need fast throughput at the point of sale.”

Live facial recognition, technology that scans crowds to identify faces, has been challenged by civil rights campaigners because of concerns about consent. CRB Cunninghams said the system being installed in UK schools was different – parents had to give explicit consent and cameras check against encrypted faceprint templates stored on school servers.

A spokesperson for North Ayrshire council said its catering system contracts were coming to a natural end, allowing the introduction of new IT “which makes our service more efficient and enhances the pupil experience using innovative technology”.

They added: “Given the ongoing risks associated with Covid-19, the council is keen to have contactless identification as this provides a safer environment for both pupils and staff. Facial recognition has been assessed as the optimal solution that will meet all our requirements.”

The council said 97% of children or their parents had given consent for the new system.

A Scottish government spokesperson said that local authorities, as data controllers, had a duty to comply with general data protection regulations and that schools must by law adhere to strict guidelines on how they collect, store, record and share personal data.

Hayley Dunn, a business leadership specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “There would need to be strict privacy and data protection controls on any companies offering this technology.

“Leaders would also have legitimate concerns about the potential for cyber ransomware attacks and the importance of storing information securely, which they would need reassurances around before implementing any new technology.”

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