Facial Recognition School Lunch Payments Spark Privacy Concerns In UK

Nine schools in North Ayrshire have introduced the biometric payment system, reportedly with 65 more to follow. Image Credit: Chepko Danil Vitalevich/Shutterstock.com

“We're introducing Facial Recognition!” cheerily opens a flyer given to some parents in Scotland, describing a new method to pay for school lunches. However, the move has sparked concerns about children’s privacy and data protection.

Nine schools in North Ayrshire have introduced the biometric payment system, reportedly with 65 more to follow. The company behind it, CRB Cunninghams, said in a statement that “Facial Recognition is a quick, simple identification method that allows pupils to select their meal, look at the camera and go,” also claiming that the software works even when wearing a face mask.

According to an FAQ sheet: “the software turns your child’s physical characteristics into an encrypted (using AES 256) string of characters known as a template.” When a child looks into the camera, “the software reads key features (distance between facial features) and compares this against the database of registered users.”

However, Professor Fraser Sampson, Commissioner for the Retention and Use of Biometric Material and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, told the Financial Times that “If there is a less intrusive way, that should be used.”

Hygiene and time-saving are why the technology is being implemented, with the company stating that the method is entirely contactless and only takes five seconds.

“It’s the fastest way of recognising someone at the till," David Swanston, managing director of CRB Cunninghams, told the Financial Times. “In a secondary school you have around about a 25-minute period to serve potentially 1,000 pupils. So we need fast throughput at the point of sale.”

The FAQ sheet given to parents addresses privacy, saying that alongside the facial data being encrypted it will also be deleted if a child leaves the school or opts out of the system. Using a PIN is available as an alternative payment method.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – an independent body to uphold information rights in the UK – says it will be reaching out to North Ayrshire council concerning the facial recognition payment system.

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