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Florida School District Installs Fingerprint Scanners to Take Attendance

Gone are the days of a raised and hand and simple "Present." Now students in one school district must submit a fingerprint to be counted in morning roll call.

The Washington County school district in Florida has a little problem with inconsistent attendance. After weighing their options, school officials decided to place finger scanners at the entrance to Chipley High School, where incoming students are scanned in each morning. Because most kids in the district ride buses every day, and because keeping track of everyone in the halls is difficult, the system will be moved to select buses for a trial period to determine if it's a more efficient way to save time and to ensure students are accounted for from the time they arrive until they're dropped off at home.

The program has been in place for about two months, and so far, attendance is up--but not everyone is happy about it.

Identity theft

There are questions about the security of a device that reads a fingerprint, "which is a unique, identifiable piece of information," and then "stores it in a database, and links it to a name" (Kelly Hodgkins, Gizmodo). Being that the students are mostly minors, it's a legitimate concern, and one that Washington Co. Schools Superintendent Sandra Cook is quick to dismiss: There are only four or five points recorded in each scan, which are translated into a 60-digit passcode. "We can't go backwards with it. We can't turn around and take that number and recreate the points on a finger." (DailyMotion)

$$$

The scanners cost about $22,000. Per student, this breaks down to about $30 a year each, which is a problem for some parents, and an expense they say the school doesn't need. But Clay Dillow at PopSci thinks it'll all come out in the wash: "At $30 per student per year, the system isn’t necessarily cheap. But considering the uptick in attendance (which means more money from the state in many districts) and the inherent increase in accountability and student safety, it may well be worth the cost."

1984?

Even accounting for privacy, security and the cost, isn't it "kinda Orwellian that the school wants you to flash your fingerprint before you can learn"? And what does it say about the district schools? As Micheal Trei at DViCE comments, "it seems like a sad commentary if you need to treat students like prisoners to get them to attend."

But Superintendent Cook has no concerns. "When it's all said and done, we're going to find that this is going to be one of the most monumental things that Washington County has ever done," she says. And parents can always opt out by signing a waiver and having their children check in with a teacher each morning.

What do you think? Is it too "Big Brother" to ask students to scan a finger for attendance, or is this just an example of technology improving an inefficient process?

Sources:

Image: pcstelcom.com

Alex, I think the school's concern is that kids are just coming and going during the day. The price breakdown suggests there are around 730 kids on campus--I don't know how that figures per class or grade, but in high school where kids aren't all in the same room all day, there's probably a lot of opportunity to sneak out. That said, I find this a bit ridiculous. We had student ID cards we swiped when we left for lunch and entered school functions. A check-in and check-out process might have worked as well without requiring a fingerprint.
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$22,000 per machine?? I've got a five-year-old ThinkPad laptop with a fingerprint scanner built in to it. It feels like they ought to have been $1000 per scanner at the absolutely top end. Hell, you could hire a dude to walk around and talk to kids for the price of two scanners per year...
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The more that kids become accustomed to such Orwellian practices, the easier it becomes to take away their freedoms when they become older. We are sleepwalking our way into a society in which our every move is recorded, monitored, tracked, traced and, ultimately, can be used against us by the people who (they tell us) are only doing it for our own convenience. Parents can sign a waiver. If they ALL (or a majority) sign a waiver, the school will have to rethink this stupid policy.
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Maybe I just don't get it -- so the kids check in via fingerprint for morning roll call (which is essentially no different than taking roll call in morning home room.) How, exactly, does this help keep track of those who sneaked out during the day to skip classes? Unless each and every class has a scanner and it immediately notifies the office if one goes missing between classes, this whole thing makes no sense. (And, truthfully, a plain old fashioned piece of paper (or email, if the teachers have access) could accomplish the same thing.
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The fingerprint thing does seem a little creepy, but anyone who flies on a plane these days gets a full body scan and some even get a nice groping too.
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@elagie - you don't get it. Baltimore county and Baltimore city schools have been using it for two years, although they just use id cards. It doesn't work that way at all.
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If the issue is kids coming and going all day, then I don't see how a fingerprint system on buses would solve the problem. I mean, a kid could "scan in" in the morning, skip class, then come back and "scan out" at the end of the school day.

It seems like you can solve that simply by doing roll calls at the beginning of each class.
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Vmax, the fact that full body scanners are used at airports is not a justification for a seemingly less-intrusive scanner at schools. We should be outraged by BOTH, rather than saying 'well they do X at airports so we shouldn't worry too much about Y at schools'. That just leads to people thinking that because Y is okay for kids, Z (a more intrusive tech than Y, whatever that might be) is okay for adults in other situations. It's the gradual build-up of such intrusive technologies, rather than a sudden loss of freedoms, which is the issue. Parking attendants demanding a fingerprint? How dare they... oh wait, they do it in schools so what's the problem? And so on.
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Nick, I was against the fingerprint option. After learning about the technology, I discovered that it's more innocuous than I thought. The data can't be reversed to get a print and is more like asymmetric cryptography. It is encrypted for storage. The kids need to have some id for the school and either have to scan their finger or swipe their id card. If you don't want your kids to use the option, that's your decision. It is not being forced on anyone.
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Personally, the only positive thing I see about this system is that a kid will never misplace a fingerprint and is therefore not capable of showing up unprepared. They sent us home to get our ID card or made us purchase a new one if it was lost.
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I think people have missed the point here. It doesn't matter if the data can't be reversed to get a fingerprint, it's the fact that the data is used to track the child's movements which is the issue. Widen that out to other areas of life and pretty soon it becomes surveillance. The more places you are required to put into a database that you are at point A, B, or C at time X, Y or Z, the easier it is to track your movements. It's a privacy and personal freedom issue. And as I said before, using it with kids gets them used to the idea that this is normal.
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It's a school, they're supposed to know where the kids are. Can you imagine calling the school and having them NOT know where your kid is?
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"a kid will never misplace a fingerprint" until they break a finger and it's in a split and can't be scanned, or newly bandaged stitches, or worse; have lost the finger in an accident. To say nothing of those who don't have fingerprints, either temporarily (hives, psoriasis, chemicals) or permanent (a genetic condition).

The students are already "surveilled", in that attendance is taken. The question is more should surveillance be done with humans in the loop or out of it? Is that the kind of culture we want?

What I can't figure out is, how did we ever have schools before the days of fingerprint scanners, ID cards, and other high tech gear? Is the quality of the education measurably better as a consequence? Do fewer students get kidnapped?

Frankly the "more money from the state in many districts" tells me this is a Prisoner's Dilemma sort of thing. There's $X million to spend on schools, which is allocated to the schools which can prove the highest attendance. One school uses a new technology to improve those rates, so gets more money from the pot. Less money goes to other schools, so they respond by using the same technology.

Once everyone has it, the proportion of money handed out reverts to the original level, except now there's the cost of maintaining all this near gear. The only benefit is to the companies which manufacture the equipment, and that's money taken away from education.
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Vmax: "Can you imagine calling the school and having them NOT know where your kid is?"

And this system helps precisely how? Are the students scanned all the time? What happens if one of the students leaves campus during lunch? In 2nd grade I remember skipping some special class and hanging out under an outside stairwell.

Vmax: "anyone who flies on a plane these days gets a full body scan and some even get a nice groping too"

Yes, and I nearly get nervous breakdown each time and have to force myself to do it. I last year even took Greyhound instead of a flight because I didn't want to risk breaking out crying again.

Plus, by every test which has been made public, the additional screenings have not lead to measurably better security. For example, getting a gun past security is as easy now as it was 12 years ago.
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My local high school has over 1,000 students and no I.D. cards. They don't seem to have any trouble keeping up with kids. In fact, they call me to check when one of mine doesn't show up for school.
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The student scans their finger or swipes their card when entering the building, their name and photo appear on the screen. If they have any outstanding alerts(class cuts, suspension) an alarm sounds and the list of infractions prints at the local printer. The station has a staff member to monitoring the process. For each class, the teacher opens a web page showing the student list and their current status. If someone isn't there and should be the teacher clicks on the record. If you skip scanning in and your first couple classes, you will be caught the first time you go to a class. If you just don't go to any class, you will be marked as absent. Students also have to swipe out of the building in the main office if they leave school early.
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Vmax, there are levels of security which are simply too high - if you go beyond a certain point you are impinging on a person's freedoms, on their civil liberties. What reassurance does fingerprinting give a parent that their child is at school? If the child decides not to go to school at all, do you know where they are? If they didn't use the scanner, no, you have no idea.

Do we then want to insist that all children carry GPS tracking devices? Then we'd know where they are at all times, right? That's the next level of security. But of course the child could just leave the tracker somewhere, so perhaps we'd need some way to avoid that, because we need to know exactly where that child is at all times... don't we? Embedding a tracking device inside a child: the next level of security. Now THAT would work, and finally the parents are fully reassured.

I've taken the examples to extremes, but you see how we'd gradually move from one system to the next, from a system which relies on simple head counts, to fingerprint tracking, to GPS tracking... etc. All because the previous level of security was considered imperfect. All the time you're trying to fix a problem which doesn't need fixing.

Would anyone be okay with GPS tracking devices permanently attached to the bodies of their children? Or failing that, cuffing them to their desks? Because that's what it would take to KNOW where a child is at any given moment. That's what it would take to prevent a child who decides to leave the school just walking out and going, should they wish to do so.

We do not need to know with 100% certainty where a child is. What we do need to do is trust in people, and trust in the idea that children do not just disappear - even if they truant from school they invariably turn up. If it's fear of abduction (which is a TINY risk, statistically), well it would take a lot more than fingerprinting to prevent such a thing - you'd have to send kids to high-security camps for that.

Can I imagine calling the school and having them not know where my kid is? No, because I cannot imagine ever calling a school and demanding to know where my kid is at any point in time. Why would I ever do that?

And let's say that I did need to find them, for whatever reason (are there enough reasons to justify installation of a $22,000 scanner?)... couldn't I just send my kids a text message and ask them to call me back?
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Miss C., unfortunately as the school enrollment goes up, school staff does not. The system cuts down on the time staff is dealing with attendance and discipline. Most of the schools that use it have 3000-4000 students.
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Nick, it's not 22k per scanner, it's 22k for the entire district(8 schools). Includes all the hardware, software, support, maintenance and training. If the student doesn't use the scanner, the school admin staff are notified. Parents can get calls or texts if they want to know. The reason for all this is because a lot of students can't be trusted to go to school and some of their parents can't be bothered. As far as calling the school, I've had to do it myself for a family emergency. I'm pretty sure you don't have kids because you think you'd be able to text them at school. That's been banned for years.
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@Vmax, re: text - It's not necessarily true that you can't text your kids at school. My daughter is 6 and her elementary school has a "carry silent" policy for cell phones. She doesn't have one (I mean, she's *six*), but if I were to send her to school with a phone , I could text her while she was there.
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Kids find a way to text, trust me.

The point is, Nick is gettin his back up about the whole loss of civil liberties, but the reason why we resort to harsh measures (harshness level debatable here), is because the current way of doing things is not working.
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And Nick, are you serious? People phone schools about their kids all the time. Schools have a huge responsibility to parents, and if one child goes missing, they will hear about it.

Here are three reasons for a parent to reach the school to find the child, off the top of my head: Suppose there's a family emergency, and the child has to be reached. Suppose the custodial parent is concerned about the non-custodial parent kidnapping their child. Suppose the child forgot to take his/her medicine to school that day.
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Vmax, you say 'the data can't be reversed to get a print'.

I'm quite sure that's the case. However, each code stored for each user is unique and can only be created from one person's print. The fact that you don't have the visible lines and swirls of a fingerprint is irrelevant - what you've stored is data which can ONLY be obtained from a particular fingerprint. All you need to use it to match with another print is similarly encoded data for that other print.

Most people would say that the school data differs from the fingerprint data stored by government crime/security agencies, from the data associated with convicted criminals. This is because you couldn't find a fingerprint at a crime scene and visibly compare it with the prints in the school database - there are no prints stored, only encrypted data.

Right so far?

However, what is to stop someone finding a fingerprint at a crime scene and encrypting it in exactly the same way that the schoolchildren's data is encrypted, and then comparing THAT data with the contents of the kids' database?

You see, you don't need to store the full representation of a fingerprint in order to have something which can be used against you. You just need a unique identifier (the encrypted version of the print), which can be compared with other similarly encrypted identifiers.

If it's unacceptable to store the fingerprint data of innocent people, and most people would be of the opinion that it is, then it's unacceptable to store the fingerprint data of children, even if it's encrypted, because it can still be used in some of the ways that criminals' data is used.

If you can compare a live child's fingerprint with the school database to get a match, you can compare the contents of that same database with prints found at a crime scene, or with the whole of the criminal database, purely by encoding those prints in the same way.

Therefore by taking a child's fingerprints at a young age, you have the potential to store, for life, identifying data which can be used in the same way that the criminal fingerprints database is used.

Are parents made aware of these possibilities? I doubt it. Or if they are, do they trust the government not to misuse such data? Governments aren't know to be great at storing information and NOT using it for other purposes are they?

This is NOT a good thing.
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Ted, I agree with the examples you give, but you don't seem to explain why the use of fingerprint scanning machines would be any more effective than a simple register of who's in the class. How did you cope with a family emergency five years ago when this technology wasn't available? And if you call the school and the kid hasn't been scanned in at all, what then? The only knowledge you have is 'child is present' or 'child is missing'. If he/she is missing, what then? You have no way of knowing where they are.

This system is a way of recording who has used the scanner, not where in the world those who haven't used it might be. So when (as you say) 'the current way of doing things is not working', and fingerprint data is 'the current way', will you want constant GPS tracking of children?

Meanwhile, with this system you have a lot of fingerprint data of children, which can be used (potentially) as I describe in the above post.

Regarding civil liberties, perhaps this Benjamin Franklin quote may be appropriate:

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety"

Once you give up one freedom, it's much easier to give up others - you can lose a lot of freedom if you give it away one piece at a time.
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Actually Nick, you're completely wrong. In samples of over 8K, you are almost guaranteed to get duplicates. I've see duplicates in less than 500 samples. At this point I've decided that you aren't worth responding to. You seem to just want a conspiracy and feel the need to be afraid of "The Man". At this point you've just become sad.
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@Vmax - first of all, thank you for your comments. We appreciate your point of view (and expertise) on this, though as you can see, some of the commenters don't agree with the use of this technology.

I have one question for you: how do you measure "success" with the use of fingerprint scanning technology in schools? What is considered improvement over the use of traditional roll calls? Is that improvement quantifiable?

@Adrienne - kudos! Great topic for a post and discussion.

Lastly, to all Neatoramanauts: I'd like to remind everyone that we should be able to have a discussion about controversial topics. Differing points of views are fine, but let's keep the discussion fair and civil.
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Vmax, if you get duplicates in less than 500 samples how on earth does that make this kind of tech useful in a school of 3000-4000 students (your figures)? So each fingerprint might actually be one of 5 or 6 other kids, and you can't actually tell for sure because it's not accurate enough? Please tell me that's not what you mean, and/or explain how this can possibly be of any use if the data is so imprecise.

As for your 'conspiracy' comment, please read some TSA-related stories if you think that enhanced security measures are all about the benefits they can provide to law-abiding citizens.

Unfortunately I wouldn't expect you, freely admitting to having a personal stake in this technology, to be anything other than 100% biased - systems architect and programming director of the company is about as one-sided and closed-minded as it gets.

If you're happy with contributing to a society edging closer to more and more 'tracking' and 'enhanced security', so be it, but don't pretend you don't know that this kind of tech has great potential for misuse.
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Vmax, Just to add that my understanding of the accuracy of the data comes from the article's text: a 60-digit passcode would surely not give duplicates, given that you would only need 10 digits to give a unique number to every person on the planet.

Alex, I'm definitely trying to be civil, but I do have strong opinions on this subject :)
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This just really silly and just an excuse to waste money on a flashy machine.
It would be better is the teachers called the roll at the beginning of each class, that way there's no sneaking off after initial check-in and no extra $20,000 required.
That's what all of the schools I've attended and worked at have ever done and it seems to work just fine.
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Here's the thing that really bothers me about this story. None of the people involved have been contacted. It's based on two short news clips. This is standard blogging; this is not news, it's internet gossip. Oh, and dj_nme, just try that crap at one of my schools, and your parents (if they care) would come down on you just like mine did when I tried to skip.
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@alex, when dups happen we have all the kids register another finger. Wow, yeah, you got in my head because everyone knows that I'm just a money, money, money guy. The finger scanner was developed for lunch scanning, so that if a kid forgot their card, they could still get lunch. But, hey, I'm a corporate greedy guy, Not human at all. I am completely responsible for what other people do with my technology. Thanks for trying to make me feel bad about what I do.
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@Vmax: I think you misunderstood the tone of Alex's questions, which were presented with genuine interest. As you mentioned before, information about exactly how the system works (or, at least, how it's implemented here) is a bit limited. I can assure you that Alex wasn't being provocative, but sincerely curious.

That said, I'd like to ask (in seriousness) his question again: What is the metric for success with a system like this? Is it simply improved attendance?
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@Adrienne: I think there would have been a lot less misunderstanding if the principals had been contacted before posting something that would cause people to get freaked out. We're out here and I love to explain the tech that I produce as long as I'm not being attacked with un-informed "What If" scenarios.
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The system also can track teachers, they get a short range (2-3 inch) RF Key FOB. It has a visitor module that can(not mandatory) scan most IDs. This is my part time job, and pays very little. I do it because unfortunately I've seen some of the bad things that can happen in schools. Now, thanks to Neatorama and SlashDot, I'm Big Brother.
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@Vmax: This article is an opinion brief--that is, it's a round-up of what people think about a given topic, based on the information available to everyone. There are official news reports linked 3 separate times in the story (two local news, one video) from sources who were in contact with school officials. The remainder of the commentary are the reactions to that information, with author and publication credits for each. This was never presented as a piece of investigative journalism, and I won't pretend that it even resembles one. Any bias in the piece comes from the reaction of the reporters who offered opinions in their own reports about this story. This was never intended to be a criticism of your technology or your company and certainly not of you, but rather a collection of reactions to the measures taken by one school to curb class-cutting.

That said, there's a reason people find this topic scary, and it has nothing to do with your technology, its efficiency, and especially not you personally. It's a matter of public perception regarding fingerprinting or finger scans (whether or not an actual print is taken--as most people assume it is, though we're aware that your system only uses a few specific points of reference): The only time a person is ever required to submit a fingerprint for identification is if they've been arrested/incarcerated or have to file certain (generally unpleasant and/or highly confidential) legal documents. There's an inherent negative reaction to being fingerprinted or scanned in any capacity and it has everything to do with prior experience (whether first-hand or on TV or what-have-you), which is largely doupleplusungood, to continue the Orwell theme.

Unless a person is in a profession where he or she is frequently exposed to high-level security locks, then this sort of identification is out of sync with daily life; it can be jarring and offensive. Submitting to a finger scan feels like being booked-in, and this tends to freak people out.

So it's not you, it's not your company, it's not personal. It's 235 years of being a country that doesn't finger-scan its children. This is what you're working against, and I don't envy your position. I do, however, commend you for being patient and thank you for answering questions, because clearly there's a lot of information that's not evident even in the sources who spoke directly to school officials about this.
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Vmax: "the student scans their finger or swipes their card when entering the building"

I'm trying to understand the setup. A school with 3000-4000 students (where you say this is being used) must surely have multiple entrances. My high school was that size and had at least 8 doorways.

That said, Chipley, FL is a rural county and not one of the large schools you're talking about. The entire district of 8 schools plus the Department of Juvenile Justice school has 3,400 students.

Assuming each scan takes 1 second, which isn't possible, then 3000 students takes 50 minutes to process. Since each station "has a staff member to monitoring the process", that's at least one staff hour spent on monitoring, and more likely two. You'll want students processed within a few minutes of arrival, so you'll need multiple scanners going.

With a manual system, teachers take attendance. Figuring 25 students in a "core" class (which is what Florida law requires) and two minutes per class, that's about 5 hours of staff time. (Four for in-class counting and one for accumulating the results).

That's a savings of three staff hours per day, or about a 0.5 staff role, or about $15,000 per year per large school of about 3,000 students. That's the best case scenario: you also need to factor in training, backup plans in case the hardware is broken, power is out, how to handle kids with a bandaged finger, etc. Overall I just don't see much savings for the school.

Do you have numbers otherwise? Is my analysis wrong?

When you argue "unfortunately as the school enrollment goes up, school staff does not", then you don't know that the Florida Constitution sets "limits on the number of students in core classes (Math, English, Science, etc.) in the state's public schools" between 18 and 25, depending on the grade. Staff must go up as enrollment goes beyond a certain point.
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Nick, I was responding to your assertion that you couldn't imagine why a parent would ever want to contact a child during school hours. Now you elaborate on that with "Well, how does this do any better than roll call?"

I think someone already addressed that point earlier, and I don't know what they're doing enough to debate it with you. I would say though, there's probably a little bit of psychology involved.

My point was that schools have an incredible responsibility: to look after children. In this litigious and incredibly paranoid and demanding world, if a parent comes looking for a kid, and that kid isn't in his/her seat learning, whose responsibility is it? Not the kid - he/she is a minor.

This hasn't been developed out of thin air. This was developed in response to a situation. Students in a lot of places have to produce photo ID to write exams, in order to prevent fraudulent test-writing (either by a friend or someone trying to make a buck). Essays are sold on the Internet. The response from the educational system is to tighten up security.

I've been in malls that have had cameras in their washrooms for years. In my high school (a number of years ago now), the second floor boys washroom had no doors on the toilets. There's privacy for you. The school could afford doors, but at some point in the past, they decided that it was preferable not to have doors on the toilets in that washroom. Loss of privacy is nothing new in schools.
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ted: No one has explained how this is better than roll call, other than that it places less work on the teachers. My analysis suggests it doesn't save much, if any time or money. It seems as well to place more responsibility on the students to be early enough to go through scans, but you (incorrectly, in my opinion) seem to say students cannot handle responsibility.

Most of the schools mentioned in this article are elementary schools, and the core classes by Florida's constitution must have no more than 25 students in them. If the teacher can't tell who the fake student is during a test then there's a much more serious problem.

This situation therefore has nothing to do with the types of exam taking you are talking about, with photo ID and fraudulent test writing, and those points are clearly irrelevant.

I've been in a number of malls which don't have cameras - your point is ... ? And in my high school I held it all day rather than use the open door toilets.

In any case, this isn't fully an issue of privacy. This is a question of benefits and costs. What does the school system gain with this, and what does it lose? Are there alternatives which are more beneficial? How do you judge the overall success? How does one judge if this is more an issue of "ooh, flashy new thing!" than good education?

Since you have thoughts on this topic: how is a biometric system better than the current manual system?
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@Andrew: I am not a sales or marketing guy. I design and build the software. From a data standpoint, you are very close(within 100) of the student count. most schools get 5-8 stations that process 48 students/minute each at max load, running concurrently. The morning run averages 45 minutes. The stations have their own battery power systems in case of power drops. Generally if the school has no power at all they cancel classes. The biometric option is not the only option. Students can be entered by name, ID card, RF key FOB, or finger. Two fingers are enrolled in case they hurt one, and can pull up a student record in 1 second. The biometric was created for the lunch scanning. Since the module loads as part of the collector object, it can be use in all modes. The primary gain is not in staffing costs. The gain has been proven on decreased class cutting(60-80%) and increased attendance(up to 10%). So, in a nutshell; the teachers get more time to teach, students are more likely to be in class, and the admin staff can respond to students having problems in a more timely way.
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I'm willing to bet that the increased attendance is not due to the use of fingerprint recognition technology as such - it's the back-end 'we will contact the parents if the child isn't present' stuff which does the trick. In other words, you don't actually need the biometrics at all, you could just enter the rollcall into a computer and have the system do its stuff from there. As a bonus, you get interpersonal contact with the teacher every morning.

Vmax says in his post, above, that there are alternatives options to biometrics, which presumably afford the same benefits. So why use fingerprints at all?

I would be interested to know: what are the health implications of hundreds of people all touching the same spot, one after the other, in a food consumption area (lunch scanning, mentioned above)? Are the units sanitised regularly?

Lastly, this is a relatively small, local scheme. What do you think the reaction would be if the government said that every child should now have their biometric data stored in a database? Maybe one, centrally administered database. Think how much time that would save - for example if they ever moved to a different part of the country. Why have lots of separate systems when you can have just one? Think of the benefits.

What about every adult too - why not? It would save time and money to scan everyone into a central database to avoid duplication in lots of smaller schemes. I wonder how well that would be received. I wonder.

What's the policy on disposal of the data when a child leaves school? Is their biometric data erased from the database? How about from the backups?

Vmax has said he won't respond to me, so perhaps someone else knows? Surely there is a detailed document out there, listing all the important points, which is given to parents before they decide whether they want their child enrolled in this scheme. Is that available online somewhere? Or does it exist at all?
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