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D.R. | 25.07.2002 21:02

Privacy International calls for prohibition of child finger printing and urges Parliamentary inquiry into "unofficial endorsement" by the Information Commissioner


Privacy International calls for prohibition of child finger printing and urges Parliamentary inquiry into "unofficial endorsement" by the Information Commissioner

22nd July 2002

The global human rights watchdog Privacy International (PI) has warned that tens of thousands of UK school children are being finger printed by schools, often without the knowledge or consent of their parents.
The electronic finger printing is being conducted as part of a cost cutting "automation" of school libraries. Privacy International has condemned the procedure, branding it "dangerous, illegal and unnecessary", and has called for a prohibition of the technology in schools.

As many as 200,000 primary and high school children from the age of seven have already been finger printed. The vendor estimates that at least 350 users have installed the system, including Kenton School, Queens Park County Primary School, St Annes (Stanley) CE School, Fryern Junior School, St Leonards RC Comprehensive School and Radyr Comprehensive School.

The technology being used on British children is similar to the identification systems used in US prisons and for the German military. It is being used in UK schools - sometimes in conjunction with digitised photographs - to replace library cards and to increase efficiency of library management. Each child is required to place a thumb onto an electronic scanner, and the identity of the print is then stored in a computer.

Privacy International says the practice "de-humanises our children and degrades their human rights", and has called for the unconditional withdrawal of the technology from schools. PI's director, Simon Davies, said "the use of such systems will have the effect of de-sensitising people to more comprehensive privacy invasion later in life".

"Such a process has the effect of softening children up for such initiatives as ID cards and DNA testing", commented Mr Davies. "It's clearly a case of 'get them while they're young' They are seen as a soft target for this technology".

Privacy International, the members of which include many of the world's privacy and data protection experts, also strongly criticised the involvement of the office of the Information Commissioner, the body responsible for the protection of information privacy in Britain. In a letter (dated 4th July 2001) to the system vendor, Micro Librarian Systems (MLS), the Commission's compliance officer, Robert Mechan, praised the use of the technology in schools, arguing that finger printing "aids compliance with the Data Protection Act".
In subsequent media coverage, the Commission was reported as wanting to "encourage" the use of finger printing in schools.

"This is a bleak moment for privacy in Britain", said Simon Davies. "The Commissioner's office has damaged privacy and human rights, and has brought disrepute to its role".

"I am appalled that the Commissioner would support a situation where innocent and impressionable young children are obliged to yield their finger prints even before they have reached an age of discretion on such matters".

"The Department for Education and Skills is equally culpable in this matter. I am staggered that the department could have allowed this practice to spread without consultation with parents or children", said Mr Davies.

The practice came to light after Privacy International and the children's rights group "Action on Rights for Children in Education" (ARCH) received a complaint from the mother of a child attending Sacred Heart School in Ruislip, London. The child had been fingerprinted without the parents' knowledge or consent. They have subsequently demanded the removal of the prints from the library computer system.
The Information Commissioner's support for finger printing was given despite its stated view that it was "theoretically" possible to use the prints for law enforcement purposes.

Privacy International has called on the Home Affairs Committee and the Public Administration Select Committee to conduct an inquiry into the dealings between the Information Commissioner's office and private companies.

"The Commission's letter and comments to the media have been interpreted - and were intended - as a clear endorsement", said Mr Davies. "This practice occurs all too often and leads to significant problems for genuine privacy watchdogs who, following more careful analysis, subsequently identify shortcomings in these products", said Mr Davies.

Privacy International has lodged a request under the Open Government code for all correspondence between the Commissioner's office and technology vendors marketing such equipment for the use of young people. It has also lodged a request with the Department for Education and Skills for internal documents and correspondence.

"The Commissioner's Office must in the future publish its correspondence with such companies, together with a detailed explanation of its view." He added.

Privacy International warned that the practice of finger printing for the purpose of library cards was in clear violation of the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act. "The law states that privacy invasion must be proportionate to the threat. A few lost library cards do not warrant mass finger printing" said Mr Davies.
It is also likely that the practice breaches Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says that "no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy..."

The potential for expansion of the finger printing system to other purposes is very real, added Mr Davies. In an interview with the publication "Managing Schools Today " in September 2000, Lynn Stevens, Customers Services Manager of MLS commented, "you may ask, why stop with library systems, when schools have so many concerns with registration, attendance, and security? I assure you, we are way ahead of you. Watch this space..."


- The website of MLS can be found at . Copies of all correspondence and details of the technology, together with the identity of schools using the system, are located on that site.
- Privacy International (PI) is a human rights group formed in 1990 as a watchdog on surveillance by governments and corporations. PI is based in London, and has an office in Washington, D.C. Together with members in 40 countries, PI has conducted campaigns throughout the world on issues ranging from wiretapping and national security activities, to ID cards, video surveillance, data matching, police information systems, and medical privacy, and has worked with a wide range of parliamentary and inter-governmental organisations such as the European Parliament, the House of Lords and UNESCO.

- The web address for ARCH is



Hide the following 4 comments

Almost sci-fi

25.07.2002 23:34

Funny to think that finger-print scanners were once the stuff of sci-fi. With schools probably cutting back on materials to loan out in order to pay for technology to track items loaned out, keener students could soon be cutting off their classmates fingersto get extra books out!
What we need are retinal scanners which almost made the police station secure in Minority Report, or the DNA analysers which nearly thwarted the hero in Gattaca.


Un-revokable Information

26.07.2002 11:48

One of the problems with this type of bio-metric system is that you are relying on the collectors protecting the data that they collect.

Once it is common place that this information is being leaked or stolen then your identity with be 'invalid'.

This is not like a library card/credit card number which can be cancelled, you are stuffed for life!! You can NEVER revoke this ID (your finger print), and your whole life WILL be affected.

Is this risk worth it?

It has also been shown that the current technology is not as secure as the manufacturers claim:-

"Doubt cast on fingerprint security"

Simon W.

Appalling stuff

26.07.2002 13:11

Interesting, isnt it, that fingerprint scanners are actually a refined version of barcoders (as seen in most shops nowadays). Even at the time they first appeared, it was hinted they could be 'improved' to read fingerprints.
It also shows that the claims of the state to be safeguarding children are a little specious; who will protect children from the state, in that case ?
what were schools supposed to be for ? I quite forget; perhaps they never bothered to teach me that bit!. Perhaps 'learning' (note, nobody 'studies' anymore ) is whatever the state decides on the day.


Fingerprinting School Children

24.02.2004 13:26

The Article i read appears to be mainly about Primary School children.
My Daughter who is 14yrs old goes to a school in the Trafford Area of Manchester. and they are bringing this policy into force asap. There has been no Consulation with parents at all. There was recently a article about it in the Local Manchester Evening News and the School is defending its new policy. Do i have the right to refuse my child to be fingerprinted???
As the children have been verbally told that if they refuse they would get into trouble, Surely this is also wrong.

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