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The State of Biometrics 2022: new report

We are pleased to share our new report The State of Biometrics 2022: a review of policy and practice in UK education and want to express our thanks to everyone who contributed to it, and our ongoing work in this area.

Schools are discriminating against children in receipt of Free School Meals by demanding those pupils use biometric systems in school canteens despite law that says use must not be obligatory. The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 and weak enforcement of data protection law are failing to protect millions of children from the normalisation of routine use of biometric data for everyday canteen and library transactions, and increasingly intrusive bodily surveillance in the classroom.

Pupils in the UK are effectively guinea pigs in the use of emerging technology for companies from around the world, including facial recognition technology that has already been banned from schools in other countries.

Some companies claim that their products can measure mood and attentiveness, or use artificial intelligence to manage behaviour-based classroom planning. Some companies even claim to be able to detect autism without any child development expertise.

The fast-growing uses of intrusive technology involving bodily data in educational settings worry child rights advocates and law makers alike.

Lord Paul Scriven said, “As parents you should be very worried and angry that private companies are seeking to make a profit from your child’s face, fingers, eyes and other personal characteristics while trying to pretend that it is all to aid their educational attainment. Where do we draw the line?”

May 1st was the 10 year anniversary of the law, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. It was a wide ranging law and Chapter 2 relates to biometrics in schools in England and Wales. By requiring consent it intended  to protect children from the imposition of overly intrusive and unnecessary biometric systems.

A decade later, however, research suggests it has failed to protect children’s rights as a lawful basis in data protection law for processing in schools, due to the imbalance of power between the child and authority. And tools using data about children’s body or behaviours such as emotion recognition or facial detection can fall outside the law or infringe on human rights and dignity, which data protection laws also fail to adequately address. How these products may affect the full and free development of the child are yet to be seen.

Professor Fraser Sampson, Commissioner for the Retention and Use of Biometric Material and Surveillance Camera Commissioner and author of the report foreword, suggests there is inadequate oversight of school procurement.  “Some – including, surprisingly, the Department for Education – appear to have taken the view that bare compliance with Chapter 2 of the Act is all that is required to ensure the lawful, ethical and accountable use of biometric surveillance in schools.” He asks five key questions of practice in schools: Who’s benefiting? Who’s watching? Whose company are you keeping? Where’s the push? And, Why the rush?

There are no UK national requirements for any quality or health and safety standards of biometric or AI technology when used by state schools, and no oversight or record of what is used where.

Current legislation is ineffective in protecting children’s and students’ rights in educational settings from age 2-25 and change is needed now. defend digital me is calling for a ban on biometric systems in educational settings.

Our new report The State of Biometrics 2022: a review of policy and practice in UK education was co-written by directors of defend digital me, Pippa King and Jen Persson, and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. The foreword is written by Professor Fraser Sampson, Commissioner for the Retention and Use of Biometric Material and Surveillance Camera Commissioner. It will be published online on May 5, 2022.

Key findings include

  • Data from FOI requests to schools (all UK) Our findings from enquiries to 550 schools with over a quarter of a million pupils in total, suggests that around three quarters of secondary schools are using fingerprint technology or other biometrics, and where used, uptake is routinely 85%, or more where use is restricted to only certain year groups.
  • Despite the law requiring consent some schools in England are discriminating against children in receipt of Free School Meals (FSM) by obliging them to use the fingerprint systems, and others make it obligatory for all pupils. (We are yet to quantify these issues and plan to continue further research.)
  • Emerging technologies, school trials and scope creep including under COVID. Schools started using facial recognition more widely in 2020. At least one school got new facial recognition technology free, “as part of a trial”. Some schools combined entry access readers with thermal and facial detection. Some are trialling “experimental” products including attentiveness and mood detection that are unevidenced in their intended outcomes or in any unintentional effects on children’s behavioural and cognitive development in UK classrooms. Voice is rarely considered under school biometrics policies whereas fingerprint technology is now routine.
  • Lack of regulatory enforcement. Six months after North Ayrshire schools in Scotland put their facial recognition rollout on pause, there has been no visible ICO regulatory enforcement action.
  • Large multinational companies have bought out the originally small school biometrics suppliers and many significant UK school providers are owned in the US, Canada and Israel.
  • Parents’ survey findings (2018) Survation polled 1,004 parents with children in state schools on behalf of defenddigitalme about their experience of technology in schools. Over a third of parents (38%) whose children were using biometrics in school, said they had not been offered any choice despite the law that requires parental consent, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, and over 50% of parents had not been informed how long their child’s  fingerprints or other biometric data is retained or when the data would be destroyed.