Facial recognition system, concept. Young man on the gray background, face recognition, individual human biometrics according to world standards, the ID passport

Facial recognition technology in use in UK schools

An Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) investigation has halted the controversial use of intrusive facial recognition technology in schools days after it was introduced.

Nine schools in Scotland had begun using such technology to take payments from students at lunchtimes.

The schools in the North Ayrshire region claimed that using these systems would help speed up queues and reduce Covid-19 transmission risks. However, significant concerns around their deployment have prompted the ICO to step in.

Previously defiant North Ayrshire Council backtracks

Previously, North Ayrshire Council said that 97% of children or their parents had consented to the use of facial recognition technology. It also said that children’s data would be deleted from the system when they left the school and that data is stored as an encrypted signature, meaning that the children’s likeness isn’t stored in any database.

The Council has now backtracked, tweeting in recent days:

“Having received a number of enquiries in recent days, we have temporarily paused the contactless payment system, which uses facial recognition, in our secondary schools from this afternoon while we consider and respond to the enquiries received.

“Pupils using the facial recognition system, who do not already have PINs, will be issued with these on Monday, October 25. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and hope to be in a position to offer a further update in the very near future.”

Range of concerns included normalising biometrics in children

One concern, raised by parents of students at the nine schools and by privacy campaigners, was that it normalises exposing and tracking children via biometrics. As such, there are worries that allowing such systems to be used will quickly set a precedent that they’re acceptable. At the same time, it also raises the prospect of those children becoming adults who have grown up with facial recognition technology being used to identify them and perhaps see it as part of life without being aware of their privacy rights.

On top of these concerns, several parents of students at the schools say they don’t believe they or their children were adequately informed of the potential privacy risks.

Why was such a system even on the table?

David Swanston, Managing Director of CRB Cunninghams, who provided the nine schools with the systems, told the Financial Times, “It’s the fastest way of recognising someone at the till.

“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.”

Swanston said the system’s average transaction time was five seconds, so schools would need between three and four stations to hit the numbers quoted. According to CRB Cunninghams, another 65 schools were planning to start using the technology.

Defending the technology further, Swanston said, “It’s only used for cashless payments in a closed loop environment . . . all it does is link a person to their account in the school.”

When previously asked about the use of facial recognition technology, the Department for Education said it didn’t monitor its use in schools.

When the plans to use the system first came to light, Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch, told Sky News, “It’s normalising biometric identity check for something that is mundane. You don’t need to resort to airport-style [technology] for children getting their lunch.”

English school drops plans to implement the technology

Following the announcement of the ICO’s investigation, an English school, Great Academy Ashton, has dropped plans to use the technology.

David Waugh, the school head, said its new system combined fingerprint and facial recognition, with the latter now being dropped.

Waugh told Schoolsweek: “The ICO is saying it’s essentially overkill in terms of data security and the use of facial recognition as a data source for catering in schools.

“Because I’ve now been made aware of the [views of] the ICO we’re obviously acting upon that.”

Already banned in parts of America

Such technology has also found its way into schools in the United States, with New York already banning it, albeit temporarily, until a review of its use in 2022.

Meanwhile, Fraser Sampson, the Biometrics Commissioner for England and Wales, has said schoolchildren should be able to pay for their lunch in the least intrusive way possible. Likewise, the ICO has also said “less intrusive approaches” should be used where possible. It also warned that  “organisations need to carefully consider the necessity and proportionality of collecting biometric data before they do so”.

Of course, cases such as this are likely to raise arguments around what is “possible”. Schools will likely say such systems are a more viable alternative to employing people to take payment. Still, “cheaper” shouldn’t necessarily be used as a substitute for “possible” in a data privacy context.

Interestingly, Mr Sampson’s predecessors in the role, which is independent of the government, had previously complained to ministers that facial recognition technology isn’t covered under the same laws as DNA and fingerprints. A “bill of rights” is currently in the works in the United States to address the use of such tech. It seems increasingly likely that we’ll see legislation introduced across the United Kingdom sooner rather than later.

Facial recognition technology has long been in use in the UK, but how accurate is it?

Although the use of facial recognition technology in schools is new to the UK, the tech itself has been used in various guises for many years.

What is known as “live” facial recognition technology has been used for policing purposes since 2015, when it was deployed to identify revellers queuing to get into that year’s Download Festival at Donnington Park. This tech differs from that used in your smartphone, for example, in that there is far less control over whose faces are being captured and matched. Similar tech to that used in smartphones is used by the police to match images to mugshots.

Campaigners have long said that even these systems potentially expose people to wrongful arrest.

Live facial recognition systems are used today in airports and at several festivals and events. However, a report back in 2019 found that it was 81% inaccurate.

If your or your child’s privacy rights have been breached, you could be entitled to compensation

While there may not be specific legislation dealing with the use of facial recognition technology, your data rights still apply.

If you or your child are exposed to facial recognition technology without consent, you could be entitled to compensation.

If this has happened to you, contact LawPlus for a free, no-obligation review of your case, and learn whether you may have grounds for a claim.