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News

UK Government examines school privacy implications of Biometrics

TDSi : 31 January, 2013  (Technical Article)
John Davies of TDSi examines the current state of play for access control in UK schools with biometric technology coming under question in new government consultation
UK Government examines school privacy implications of Biometrics

Education is likely to become firmly in focus as a key market for security suppliers following A recent Government announcement to slash spending in many Whitehall departments whilst investing the savings into schools and transport schemes. However, to add a level of complexity for the access control sector, the forthcoming Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (which comes into force from 1st September 2013) adds new legislation to the Data Protection Act 1998 on holding personal data, and is especially relevant to the installation of biometric systems. This potential question mark over one of the most progressive access control technologies could present a headache for installers as much as the schools themselves, however it’s a subject that warrants further investigation and is by no means an immovable obstacle!

A Government Consultation appeal, with the hefty title -   “Protection of Biometric Information of Children in Schools: Consultation on draft advice for Proprietors, Governing Bodies, Head Teachers, Principals and School Staff, Young people, Parents and Representative bodies” – has already acknowledged the legal and practical considerations that schools will need to review when looking at potential Biometric solutions, weighing up the pros and cons of storing this information and the potential fallout. The new legislation is equally important for installers and manufacturers to understand, but rather than looking at it as a problem we should see it as an ideal opportunity to offer flexible and reliable solutions  to end users in the education sector, which make their life easier and offer full peace of mind.

Under the provisions in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, Part I, Chapter 2, schools and colleges must notify and gain consent from the parents of pupils under 18 where they intend to use their child's biometric data as part of an automated biometric recognition system. As long as the child does not object and no parent objects in writing, the consent of only one parent will be required.  The provisions also provide that a pupil of any age may object or refuse to participate in an automated biometric recognition system even where their parents have given their consent. Whenever consent is refused by a parent or pupil, the school or college must provide reasonable alternative arrangements to the biometric system.

It’s worth pointing out that this new legislation specifically controls the storing of biometric information (fingerprints, facial recognition etc) and therefore other methods are largely unaffected by this. Whilst biometric systems are an obvious choice for schools, offering high levels of security and usability (preventing the theft or misuse of entry tokens, reducing the chances of ‘tailgating’ and removing burden for users to carry identity tokens) other methods, such as MIFARE cards or PIN codes offer similar benefits but are not bound by such complex legislation regarding consent.

Whilst avoiding biometrics systems altogether could be one way of the access control industry meeting schools’ needs, there is another alternative which offers real choice. Multi-format access control readers have become a convenient reality and offer real choice for installers and clients. Whilst tokens or PIN codes offer simple alternatives, it is worth remembering that whilst parents and pupils can reject the storing of biometric details, it does not necessarily mean that the majority will. Convenience will mean many users will be happy to enrol biometric records and by using a multi-format reader the school can offer an alternative (such as a MIFARE card, access tokens and PIN codes) for thosethat want to opt out.

Equally, offering multi-format access control gives the school or college a flexible, highly future-proof access control solution. The security sector is a rapidly evolving one, so by being able to invest in a multifunctional system the client can make the most of its budget spending by providing a flexible approach to potential future access control needs. The school may want to continue running several methods of access, or may revert to one method in the future (assuming user consent allows) – making sure there is real choice.

On the face of it, further legislation can often be seen as ‘red tape’, but when it comes to personal information people are rightly wary of its use (or potential for misuse) and as an industry we have to be sympathetic to this. This is especially the case in locations such as schools where security is put in place to protect the vulnerable and the access control industry has a vital part to play in maintaining safety. The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 will give specific protection to anyone using biometric systems and sensible legislation makes any sector more accountable but also better protected against potential future issues. The access control industry is evolving faster than ever and systems manufacturers are fully aware that installers and customers need the right tools for the job. Happily, the drive for integration and usability means that the choice has never been greater and it is an excellent opportunity for installers, specifiers and manufacturers to prove the value they can offer the education sector, meeting its ever changing needs.

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