TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers are moving speedily to ban its use on schoolchildren, but the use of biometric identification isn’t going away.
Biometrics uses physical characteristics that can be measured — fingerprints, irises, voices — to identify a person. At its most basic, even a photo ID badge is a biometric identifier.
The example now causing a ruckus is in Pinellas County. Schools there use palm scanners to authorize withdrawals from pre-paid accounts, moving lunch lines faster and giving students more time to eat.
That ruckus, however, so far has been stirred by legislators, not parents.
State Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, says she caught wind of the practice and grew alarmed. She also knew about Polk County schools scanning children’s eyes to track comings and goings on school buses.
“What are we doing in government in terms of taking biometric information?” she said, mentioning her concern that the information could be breached and used for identity theft.
“I think a ban is definitely the way to go,” she said, “I want to protect school kids.”
Beyond the security fears and Big Brother-type anxiety, advocates say biometric authentication simply exists to answer the question: Are you who you say you are?
And its applications have been growing in recent years:
The city of Leon, Mexico, installed iris scanners to check the identity of ATM customers and bus riders.
In New York City, residents of some high-end apartment buildings use thumb-print readers to gain entry.
In Florida, Walt Disney World has used fingerprint scans to verify visitors re-entering its theme parks. That led to an article on eHow, the how-to guide website, called “How to Circumvent a Disney Biometric Scan.”
“Anyone with a photo ID who is uncomfortable giving Disney parks their fingerprints can present a photo ID instead,” the article says.
Most recently, Apple filed for a patent on a biometric system to connect all your electronic devices and share information between them securely, including contacts and photos.
Its iPhone 5s already can be unlocked with a fingerprint recognition system.
Seminole County used fingerprint biometrics in school lunch lines until 2011, when it ended using the system as a cost-cutting measure.
For those who oppose such technology, the favorite example has been the 2002 film, “Minority Report.” Tom Cruise’s character strolled into a future Gap store that scanned the eyes of customers to announce individualized greetings and shopping suggestions.
For the truly conspiracy-minded, the Internet is replete with sites that compare biometrics, microchips and related technologies to the biblical “mark of the beast,” so that “no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark,” according to Revelation.
Bob Marotta, a Tampa-area biometric systems consultant who has worked with police departments, federal law enforcement and the U.S. Central Command, said fear of the technology stems from not understanding it.
Biometrics has helped prevent child abductions, head off bank fraud and keeps our armed forces safe by confirming the good guys, he said.
“In the world of terrorism, there are no uniforms,” Marotta said.
He’s also sure Hukill’s fears won’t come true.
“I’ve been in this business close to 10 years and there’s no identity theft known where someone has used a fingerprint, iris scan or vein pattern from a database,” Marotta said.
Referring to Pinellas County and elsewhere, he added, “there’s too much value in these systems for the nay-sayers to be allowed to push this forward.”
Art Dunham, director of food services for Pinellas County schools, said biometric scanners have been used for four years without a problem. Parents can opt out of having their kids use the scanners; hardly any do.
The scanners don’t check the actual palm print, but instead see the unique squiggle of lines made by the veins inside the hand, he explained. The district-wide system cost about $155,000.
The system converts the scanned veins to a numeric value that matches each student in a database; no actual visual representations are stored.
With only 30 minutes to feed more than 1,000 students in some schools, the technology makes sure they have time to sit and eat. Each scan takes 1-2 seconds.
“We’ve got more students eating and fewer throwing their lunch in the trash because they ran out of time, or simply not eating at all,” Dunham said.
The system also is not connected to the Internet, he said, but uses a closed system with secure servers locked in a room in the district’s administration building.
Still, this year’s biometric ban already has cleared two Senate committees. Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala hit the brakes there, saying he wanted to instead create an “opt-in” process for parents, rather than an outright ban.
The House version has been approved by three panels, with only one member opposing, and will next be debated on the floor.
At the most recent hearing, Rep. Carl Zimmermann, D-Palm Harbor, didn’t see what the fuss was about, saying biometric scans were no more dangerous than yearbook photographs are to student privacy.
Zimmermann, an educator, still voted for the ban. The measure also prohibits gathering the political affiliation, voting history and religious affiliation of students and their parents.
“I’m for protecting the security of our kids,” he said. “As we try to make things more secure, we run this possibility of collecting data on people that maybe we shouldn’t be collecting.”