Wash. district drops lunch line palm scanner experiment

The trend to use student biometric data, such as a thumb print or palm scan, followed somewhat naturally on the heels of students typing in a personal identification number or using a plastic card to pay for their school lunches, but privacy concerns from parents rose quickly in many schools.

What those unfamiliar with school lunches might not know is that not every student pays the same price for the same meal in the school cafeteria. Some students get certain items for free or at reduced prices because they qualify for certain federal programs. As a result, the price on the register may not be what the student owes—or the register may not even display a price for the meal. When the student’s identity is confirmed at checkout, the correct amount is automatically deducted from the student’s account.

Not even the lunch lady knows which students are in the free or reduced-price meal program. And that means other students or school staff don’t stigmatize students as much as they used to when the student had to decide between declaring his participation in federal subsidy programs or forking over more cash for his meal.

But these systems also create records of what students consume at lunch, since their identity has to be confirmed in order to determine the correct price.

Puyallup (Wash.) School District officials announced at the Dec 2 school board meeting that they had stopped their experiment with hand scanners in school lunchrooms. The touch-free scanners work by shining near-infrared light to illuminate the vein patterns in the palm. The scan data is then encrypted and linked to students’ pre-paid lunch money accounts, the News-Tribune reports out of Tacoma.

The district has returned all the equipment and obtained a full refund.

Parents at the meeting criticized the board’s lack of communication and outreach about the new system. Many parents said they had learned about it from news reports, not from school officials. Members of the board promised to do a better job with the next system, because they need to get a new system. The one currently in use is 12-years-old and relies on outdated software.

But the primary concerns expressed by parents at the board meeting were about student privacy and the storage of student biometric data.

One mom pointed out that hackers had bypassed the new iPhone’s fingerprint security system shortly after it came out. “It’s concerning,” she was quoted as saying. “If we put that information out there—it’s data. It’s somewhere.”

Board member Pat Donovan said he understands the need to eliminate lunch line bottlenecks (the system saved about five minutes every 30-minute lunch period), but he said he wouldn’t support any future system that needs biometric data from students.

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Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.