Fingerprint Scans Replace Lunch Money

Jan. 18, 2001 -- Students in Pennsylvania are giving the lunch lady the finger.

A new system which uses fingerprint scanners to let kids pay for school lunches is getting raves from students and school administrators, but is making privacy advocates nervous.

The scanners make stealable lunch money, lose-able swipe cards and the stigma of being known as the free-lunch kid things of the past, says Walter Curfman, superintendent of the Tussey Mountain School District in western Pennsylvania.

“You always have your finger with you, unless you cut it off,” he said.

But Andrew Shen of the Electronic Privacy Information Center worries about how well the information will be protected from being spread around throughout the government.

“Once you have a collection of fingerprints starting from such an early age, I can imagine this being used for other purposes in the future” such as law enforcement, he said.

Popular System

The system from Altoona, Penn.-based Food Service Solutions is currently being piloted in middle and high schools at Tussey Mountain and neighboring Penn Cambria School District in rural western Pennsylvania, and Lower Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia. So far, it’s unique to the Keystone state, FSS president Mitch Johns said.

It works on a debit account system — parents put money in, and students order food. When the account runs low, a letter goes out to the parents. Parents can also restrict students’ shopping “a la carte” — buying extra food not on the day’s set menu. Students can also choose to buy items with cash.

So far, kids have taken to the new system, said Tussey Mountain cafeteria director Deb Stepisianos. Though the kids goof around a bit — putting the wrong finger down and such — so far only three sets of parents have opted out of the program, she said.

And as Tussey’s system was a beta test, they’ve had some trouble with the software, choking up lunch lines.

“When it works, it’s wonderful,” she said.

Going Too Far?

The scanning system was developed in response to a federal regulation requiring that cafeterias hide who’s getting free or reduced-price lunches, Curfman said.

But cafeterias that use swipe cards or PIN numbers and debit accounts fulfill the same requirement and are often cheaper to run, according to Dennis Waiter, national marketing director at ARAMARK, which operates cafeterias at 350 school districts across the nation.

FSS’ system costs Tussey Mountain about $50,000 for its four schools plus $4,000-5,000 a year for maintenance, Curfman said. A swipe card system from SNAP Systems, the nation’s largest purveyor of such systems, would cost between $28,000-60,000 for a district that size, plus about $3,000-4,000 a year for maintenance, according to Gloria Calvo of SNAP.

FSS wants to expand its fingerprint system for use in attendance taking and on school door locks, as the use of biometric scanners is spreading in U.S. schools. Eagen High School in St. Paul, Minn., for instance, has been using fingerprint scanners to check out books at the school library since last academic year.

Fingerprints have the stigma of criminality, privacy advocates said, and there’s no guarantee the data wouldn’t get out to law enforcement authorities or other agencies later in the game.

“At some point my bet is, somebody’s parents are going to file some sort of a lawsuit,” said Anne Cavoukian, data privacy commissioner for the government of Ontario in Canada. “I think you’re going to have some litigation on your hands: ‘why are you treating our children like common criminals?’”

Students’ biometric data — such as fingerprint records — is considered a student record and falls under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a 1974 privacy law. In most cases, the law says parents have to give written permission every time a student’s records are released to an organization other than the school system.

But there are exceptions to FERPA that are different for every school district in the nation. Usually, lawyers said, schools have to give up their records if a judge or a district attorney asks. Districts differ on whether private lawyers can also grab student records for use in lawsuits, and when the police can do it.

No Clear Picture

Of course, that’s if the police could even make use of the fingerprint scan data — and whether they can is unclear.

FSS uses a fingerprint scanner from Groupe Sagem, a French company. The Sagem scanner doesn’t store images of fingerprints. Instead, it records a few dozen points on a fingerprint and turns the location of those points into a number. The way the system is currently configured, it’s more than 99 percent efficient for up to 3,000 kids, said Steve Ketcham, a programmer for Food Service Solutions.

You can’t recreate fingerprint images from the data in the system, but if law enforcement had a similar system, they could match up the numbers. And Ketcham said FSS’ system is a “stripped down version of the AFIS,” a fingerprint-recognition system used by law enforcement.

But Johns insists the numbers produced from the finger scanners can’t be used by any other system.

“I see no way for that process to be used by anybody else,” he said.

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