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Schools and Biometric Tracking

The Changing Face of Privacy


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In the ongoing war against identity theft we have seen an increased reliance on the same technologies that have put everyone at higher risk over the past few years. The trade-off has been our personal privacy – giving up personal information to "positively identify" us to any official organization. The problem, however, is that identity thieves continue to target these same organizations to harvest information, with alarming success. Recently, biometric tracking has been implemented for everything from food stamps and welfare recipients, to our children.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a report in 1999 with an eye toward implementing biometric identification programs to reduce fraud in food stamp programs (WIC, EBT, etc.) Since then, there have been great advances in biometrics. But some Americans are wondering if it is going too far.

Biometrics are measurements of key identifiers which are supposed to be unique to an individual – fingerprints, DNA, retina patterns, etc. At first, the idea looks great. After all, if your fingerprints are unique to you, then that must be a sure-fire means of identification. It is certain enough that biometric identification has been used in the legal system for decades to convict people of various crimes. Today, getting a fingerprint scanned generates a group of numbers which represent the loops, arches and whorls. Matching fingerprints (in this example) becomes much easier, because a computer can compare the numbers to numbers already in the database to search for a match. (Back in the day, this was done by comparing the fingerprints collected from a crime scene to the fingerprints that had been collected by the police department, but it was all done by hand. Trained experts spent days poring over cards with a magnifying glass, with the goal of matching done entirely by eye.)>/p>

The privacy issues manifest when we consider who is keeping these databases. The police have collected literally millions of fingerprints, for example. We don't worry so much about that, because the police are the ones responsible for enforcing our laws, looking for the bad guys, and bringing them to justice. Biometrics has become the new standard, creating the basis for our legal digital identity. In turn, our legal digital identity is associated with our driver's license number, our vehicle registrations, and criminal record covering everything from child support to moving violations.

The notion that EBT cards will be replaced with microchips embedded under our skin has some fundamental faiths nervous, though. For example, WorldTruth.tv broke the story last year, drawing parallels to biblical references that have Christian fundamentalists greatly distressed. For all the sense that biometrics makes, it doesn't take much faith to see the stunning similarities between implementation of an embedded microchip program, and the "mark of the Beast" that has countless Sunday sermons.

But your Guide is more concerned with the recent story on USA Today that talks about palm scanners being used on students for school lunch programs. The biggest concern is that educational organizations are notoriously high in data breaches, with very little oversight in terms of their compliance with privacy laws. Schools have always asked for far more personally identifying information that can be used to commit identity thefts, often stepping far beyond the law in requiring parents to provide things like social security numbers, for which they have absolutely no legal need. By itself, that's just annoying. But coupled with the fact that educational groups are ranked third in data breaches (behind medical organizations and the government) any parent should have grave concerns about the practice.

The saddest part of the story is that most consumers are glad for the convenience this biometric tracking brings to the table. The USA Today story boasts that a child can call their parent while standing in line for lunch, and by the time they get to the other end of the line, the parent can put their debit card information into a computer at work (via the internet) to make sure the child has enough money on account to cover the meal. Then a simple swipe of the kids hand connects with the account, and the meal is paid for – easy as that.

But remember that we're really talking about computers, which see everything as groups of numbers, so the palm scanners are really just collecting a database of biometric information and recording its use. Years down the road, the child will no longer be in school, but the information will still be stored somewhere. And who may have access to that database is continuing to be debated at the Federal level. Protecting that information gets lip service, but the actuality is that protection is thin at best, and enforcement is almost nonexistent.

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