Aspen parents look closely at fingerprints
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Is scanning students’ fingerprints an inexpensive and efficient way to move students through the lunch line? Or is it a little too Orwellian for liberal-minded Aspen families?
That’s what parents are trying to decide after Aspen School District Superintendent Diana Sirko sent an e-mail letter regarding the new biometrics program last week. The district plans to implement the fingerprint scanners at the Aspen Elementary School and Aspen Middle School in order to make it easier for parents to pay for student lunches ” and pick up the pace of the lunch lines, wrote Sirko.
According to Sirko, the program the district wants to use won’t store student fingerprint information. Rather, it will convert information from the fingerprints to a data code, using an algorithm.
But parent Dylan Reagan worries that children who routinely have their fingerprints scanned may become too used to the idea. Eventually, he said, they may stop thinking of their fingerprints as information they shouldn’t give out casually.
“They’re never going to second guess [giving fingerprints] when they’re older,” he said.
Reagan said he also worries about the fingerprint information being compromised. Even if the system isn’t storing actual fingerprints, to work it must take enough information from someone’s fingerprint to identify that person specifically, he argued.
And he worried that there is no way to know where the information will ultimately end up.
“Who is to say that this company doesn’t get bought by another company?” he asked. “There’s a million different ways this could be a problem.”
Parent Jamie Cidzik also worries about the possibility of identity theft. She recently received a letter warning her that because the T.J. Maxx databases had been hacked, her financial information might have been stolen. She pointed to a long list of databases that have been successfully hacked. And fingerprints, unlike credit card information, cannot be changed, she added.
“When you tell hackers you can’t do this, that’s the first thing they want to do,” agreed parent Lisa Gonzales-Gile. “If you can work an equation one way, you can work it back the other way.”
Gonzales-Gile added that she does not think speeding the lunch line was a serious enough reason to give out biometrics information.
“I just feel that this is overkill for the lunch line,” she said.
As a flight attendant who uses biometrics to get through airport security, Gonzales-Gile noted that fingerprint scanners don’t always perform very well ” dry or dirty fingers won’t often scan, she said.
Reagan suggested that students continue to use money or be issued a card, noting that teachers could keep track of the cards if students prove prone to losing them. Paying for one’s lunch is part of learning, he said.
Gonzales-Gile also suggested the school look into cards or wristbands.
“Kids have to hang on to their ski passes all winter long,” she pointed out.
Cidzak said that right now she just wants the opportunity to have some input on the matter. The letter she received from Sirko made it sound as if the decision had been made, she said.
“If you’re going to make a decision about fingerprinting, you should have an open forum with parents to help you make that decision,” she said.
Cidzik added that she had e-mailed Sirko with her concerns and received a “nice” e-mail back indicating the district would research the information she had forwarded.
According to Cidzik, Sirko’s e-mail stated that the district had selected the option because it believed it to be safe ” if it isn’t, said the e-mail, the district plans to look for other options.
“I respect that she responded so quickly and plans to review the information,” said Cidzik. “I’m waiting for her to get back to me.”
Gonzales-Gile also suggested that before the district goes further with this plan, it should hold a meeting so parents can have their questions answered.
“A more public forum might be good,” she said. “Others might have questions we haven’t even thought about.”
In the meantime, Aspen parents appear to be holding their own informal meetings. Gonzales-Gile and Reagan both said they have found themselves among groups of parents discussing the issue ” at sports practice, or at the bus stop.
“I have yet to find one [parent] that thinks it’s a good idea,” said Gonzales-Gile.
Although Assistant Superintendent John Maloy said he understands the concerns and questions of parents, he believes that because the system does not store fingerprint images, there is no way for theft of the fingerprint data to occur. Maloy responded to questions about the scanners because Sirko had to leave town unexpectedly for personal reasons.
Michael Trader, president of M2SYS, the company that makes the scanners, stressed his belief that the system is safe. He explained that the scanner recognizes unique points on a fingerprint, then converts those points to a data string of zeros and ones, using an algorithm.
“The extraction algorithm that creates the identity template is one-way,” he said, adding that it cannot be used to reconstruct the fingerprint. He noted that it is a unique algorithm, and is not one used by other databases.
“Even if someone meant to harness identity data by breaking into a system, they would only find useless strings of numbers, as no image of any fingerprint is ever stored within the system,” M2SYS founder and CEO Mizan Rahman has written.
“The real risk is having the fingerprint image itself [stored],” said Trader. “Without that, the system runs very little risk.”
Rahman also has argued that if someone truly wanted a child’s fingerprint, it would be a relatively easy matter to lift it off something the child owns, “rather than to try to piece together an insolvable mathematical representation.” Furthermore, he has argued, surely thieves would rather intercept a wireless signal or use a tossed bank statement rather than a binary code to try and find information about people.
As for the benefits, Maloy believes the system will expedite the lunch line, free up kids’ time at lunch, help cafeteria staff more easily track student balances, and make it easier for parents to pay.
Trader added that the system allows parents to track what students are actually eating for lunch.
“If you give your child $5, you have no idea where that $5 is being spent,” he said.
The system is a relatively inexpensive option for the district, said Maloy, in part because the new scanners would tie in with their existing database, known as PowerSchool. So for roughly $1,200 ” six scanners for $200 each ” the district could make their lunch program more efficient.
“In terms of cost-effectiveness, this one makes sense,” said district technology coordinator Chris Durham.
Durham also pointed out that the new program doesn’t necessarily need to be a permanent solution.
“Let’s roll this out and see how it works,” he said.
The district currently is testing the program with a few children of staff members, to ensure it does everything it is supposed to do, said Durham. Assuming that everything works as promised, Maloy expects to begin entering students in the system at the beginning of December and to have the program up and running by the first of the year.
However, Durham added that the district is currently trying to spread word of the program in order to see if there are concerned parents.
As for the Aspen kids who will be using the system, they agreed that their lunch lines could move more quickly.
“Some days it’s very, very slow. The line backs to the end of the lunch room,” said Trey Simpson, an eighth-grade student.
“It’s not bad, but it could definitely go faster,” said fellow eighth-grade student Patrick Rafferty.
Told that the district plans to implement a program that would scan their fingerprints to identify them, most had the same reaction as third-grade student Alex Hazen: “Cool.”
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