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UK schools suspend use of controversial facial recognition technology

97 per cent of parents or children backed using the technology.
97 per cent of parents or children backed using the technology. Copyright Getty via Canva
Copyright Getty via Canva
By Pascale Davies
Published on Updated
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Nine schools in North Ayrshire in Scotland had been using the technology for a week.


A group of schools in the UK suspended the use of controversial facial recognition software, which was rolled to verify children’s identities when paying for school meals.

Nine schools in North Ayrshire in Scotland started using the technology last Monday and said that using the technology is quicker and more hygienic than paying with cards or fingerprint scanners amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the council reportedly communicated to parents that the use of software would be paused,following ther UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) inquiries.

The Guardian reported the ICO, an independent body that for information rights in the UK, said it would be contacting North Ayrshire council and urged a "less intrusive" approach where possible.

An ICO spokesperson said organisations using facial recognition technology must comply with data protection law.

"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," they said.

“Organisations should consider using a different approach if the same goal can be achieved in a less intrusive manner."

Data storage

According to North Ayrshire council, 97 per cent of children or their parents had consented to the use of facial recognition in schools.

The schools use an opt-in system that parents have to agree to and can alternatively use a PIN for verification of payment.

The children’s biometric data is stored in an encrypted form and the data is deleted after the child leaves the school.

"It's the fastest way of recognising someone at the till," David Swanston, the managing director of CRB Cunninghams, the company that provided the system, told the Financial Times.

He told the newspaper the average transaction time using the system was five seconds per pupil.

"In a secondary school you have about a 25-minute period to serve potentially 1,000 pupils. So we need fast throughput at the point of sale".

Normalising ID checks

Silkie Carlo of the UK campaign group Big Brother Watch told the Financial Times that the technology was unnecessary in schools.

"It’s normalising biometric identity checks for something that is mundane. You don’t need to resort to airport style [technology] for children getting their lunch," he told the newspaper.

Schools in the United States have been installing facial recognition technologies in schools for the last few years for security purposes.

Meanwhile, the Moscow metro introduced a facial-recognition payments system, sparking fears the technology could be used to identify protesters and political opponents of President Vladimir Putin’s government.

In early October, the European Parliament called for a ban on the technology in public spaces and for stricter safeguards for police use of artificial intelligence, arguing the technology could lead to discrimination.

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