Fingerprints for Food

Posted in Posted on 2014-06-24 22:26

What follows is the text of a letter sent to Bitterne Park Secondary School, Southampton on 24th June 2014.

Dear Mrs Trigger,

Re: cashless catering

I approve of the cashless catering idea in principle: it removes any difference between those who have free school meals and those that don’t. It stops anyone stealing someone’s money or losing their own. I should also note that I am not irrationally worried about the technology: I work in IT research and fully understand how these systems work.

Basically my issue with the system is that it just is not necessary to use a fingerprint: a swipe card or PIN can be used with the same point of sale system and would be more appropriate. My main concern is that is normalises giving away personal data at a point in history when people in general are struggling to appreciate its value. We try to teach our children not to post things they would regret on Facebook and yet the school is telling them that handing over their fingerprints just to pay for food is just fine.

By law the children have to be educated about the system and be told about their right to refuse and what the alternative is. To my understanding this has not yet been done. Instead I have one of my children being told by their tutor that they need to bring the form back or they will not be able to get any food in September. And what about that form? There is no explanation as to what the alternative is, no option on the form to say you do not want to permit your child to take part and we were given just 4 days to return it.

From talking to parents of children due to join the school in the 2014 academic year, I understand that they have been asked up-front to give their consent for the fingerprint system. Again though, if this is the same information that we, as current parents, were sent then it does not describe the alternative or give an easy way to refuse. Will the new intake (every year) receive education on the reasons for requiring the data, their right to refuse and on personal data safety in general?

The alternative, I have now been told, would be to use a PIN: the student would type in their PIN and their photo would appear on the cashier’s screen as a check. I do wonder why the alternative cannot be using cash as they do now: it works, has no privacy implications and we all have it.

European and UK data protection law has a principle called “proportionality”: basically, if you want to request and store personal data then there has to be a good enough reason for it. I am not saying the use of this system is illegal – I am not a lawyer, and the system only records a few pieces of data about the fingerprint rather than a scan of the fingerprint itself – but it comes back to the psychological issue: the children do not understand that it is not the actual fingerprint and many will happily hand over the fingerprint for food happy in the knowledge that the school has asked them to and that therefore it is okay.

I am left wondering what problem this system has been brought in to solve. The salesman at the information evening repeatedly pointed out how fast it was compared to people fumbling for change and this was repeated in the letter about the system we received. The school seem to recognise that there is (unsurprisingly) a problem in getting 1600 people fed in 45 minutes [edit: apparently it is actually 35 minutes], however, my children tell me that it is not the paying for the food that holds the queues up but the getting served. In other words, even if the food was free it wouldn’t be any faster. I have received no good explanation as to why the lunch hour cannot be just that: 1 hour long.

So, we have a system, now ordered, to be used from September which seems unlikely to solve the problem of lunchtime queues and sends an inappropriate educational message to our children. We, as parents, are given no option to refuse on the form, the school has not yet discussed alternatives with the children (as they must do by law) or with the parents in general.

Mr (REDACTED) asked me if I had any input for the assembly round this week. I would suggest:

  • You must follow the law:
    • describe what the alternative is
    • let them know they have the right to refuse at any time, even once signed up to the system
  • You must not pressurise them into using the system:
    • My youngest daughter has been told by her tutor that she must bring the form back in or she will not get any food – this is unacceptable
  • I think you should explain why you want to install the system: I would also like to know. As described above, I don’t believe it will speed up the whole serving process.
  • You should point out that the system is not taking a police-style record of their fingerprint and that for this reason it is okay to do this.
  • I would take the opportunity to point out to the students that although the school is asking for this data, in general they should be very careful in giving away personal data such as this (or phone numbers, email addresses, date of birth, etc.).
    • It’s a bit tricky, as I think the fact the school is asking for this data unnecessarily is a bad educational message so you’ll have to do the best you can to turn this around.

Yours sincerely,

Dr S Phillips.


The response from the school did not address most of my points. I was informed that there was an “alternative pin system” (which I actually mention in my letter) and that they would support parents who felt unhappy about the fingerprint system (and presumably children who do not want it either?). I was told that they would like parents to support what they were trying to do “in terms of speeding up the lunchtime service” and to “reduce the amount of cash that students have to have within school”. My letter clearly explains in the very first sentence that I am in favour of cashless catering (I am in favour of cashless anything to be honest) and also that I dispute their claim that it will speed up the lunchtime service.

I was told that “Extending the lunch hour is not an option” as adding more time to the lunch break would mean a reduction in after-school club time. I would argue that giving children enough time to eat was more important than after-school clubs.

I was told that the system “is common to most of others schools in Southampton and across the UK” but I just don’t see the relevance of that. Cashless catering: fine. Fingerprints: not so good. You can have both cashless catering and no fingerprints so why not do that?

Finally, I am told that the system “will allow us to have greater benefits for the catering dept. and ultimately our students”. I can see that an electronic point of sale (EPoS) system is useful to the school as it can record what has been sold (and when) but again, this is unrelated to the fingerprint issue and I am frankly surprised that they didn’t already have such a system.

My children reported to me that the assemblies following this exchange did not explain about the alternatives or go into any of my suggested points.

I have to admit, at this point I gave up on this particular argument as the school just did not seem to be addressing the issues and (as ever) there were plenty of other things to do. It would be interesting to know what information was provided to the 2014 intake though. Can anyone tell me?

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