Ed-Tech Policy

Finger-Scanning Technology Monitors School Employees

By Rhea R. Borja — October 23, 2002 6 min read
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Casinos in New Mexico use it. So do Kroger’s grocery stores in Texas, financial firms in New York, and even some airports. And now, so does at least one major school district.

They all use biometrics, sophisticated sensor or optical technology that reads genetic material such as fingerprints, hands, irises, retinas, and even faces. That technology, which emerged from the federal “Star Wars” missile-defense program begun in the 1980s, is slowly gaining a foothold in employee- management and security systems nationwide. And it’s become especially popular since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last year, its proponents say.

More than 18,000 employees at San Francisco International Airport, for example, report to work by scanning their hands through biometric machine readers installed at more than 180 entrances. The Kroger Co., the nation’s largest grocery chain, is pilot-testing fingerprint readers for customers to pay for groceries.

Here in the 206,000-student Philadelphia school system, officials are using the technology to track the comings and goings of thousands of workers.

But some educators have serious concerns about this new way of employee time management. Those worries are especially acute in Philadelphia, where district officials plan to expand the use of biometrics to all 30,000 employees next year —including teachers.

Ted Kirsch, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the practice would violate educators’ privacy and send the message that the district doesn’t trust them.

“Is this Big Brother? How does putting fingers in a machine tell principals where their teachers are?” he said. “This is ludicrous. This is a police state we’re living in.”

How It Works

Currently in Philadelphia, about 3,300 school employees—mostly maintenance-staff members, as well as administrators and workers in food services, human resources, and purchasing—clock in and out by scanning their fingers. The district has 284 biometric time clocks in 268 schools and four administrative buildings.

After the district expands the program to track all employees, at least two biometric clocks will be in each of the district’s 187 elementary schools, three in each of its 42 middle schools, and four in each of its 30 high schools.

Gone are the days when workers inserted a paper timecard into a manual time-clock machine, which “punched” in the date and time. Now, an employee types his identification code into a small keypad and slides his index and middle fingers onto a small black platform.

The computerized system, which is connected to the district’s intranet, takes a three- dimensional “picture” of the fingers by going underneath the skin’s first layer and measuring between 8 to 16 points of the fingers through radio frequency. That image is reduced to a binary number, which the system then matches with the employee’s original image in a central database. If they match, a green light on the machine glows, stating that the log-in attempt is valid.

The biometric system, manufactured by Accu-Time Systems Inc., based in Ellington, Conn., and installed by TimeTrak Systems, of Glenn Mills, Pa., debuted in the school district three years ago.

Back then, the district had a problem with cheating by employees who had co-workers punch their timecards for them. In addition, many of the district’s time clocks were more 20 years old and didn’t work properly, or at all. Replacement parts were difficult or impossible to get, school officials say.

So Philadelphia decided to use technology formerly used mainly to protect nuclear power plants and other high- security systems. “There was an issue of time theft, so we wanted a system that couldn’t be beat,” said Thomas E. McGlinchy, the school district’s chief operating officer.

The district decided to use a finger-scanning system because it seems less invasive than fingerprinting, is virtually foolproof, and is highly accurate, Mr. McGlinchy said. The finger scanners also use a technology different from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s fingerprint system, which means people don’t have to worry about this information possibly entering the FBI’s fingerprint databases.

Noting privacy concerns, Mr. McGlinchy emphasized that the finger scans are confidential.

“This is subject to [the same protections as] anything else that’s in a personnel file,” he said. “We wouldn’t give this out to anyone more than we would give out a Social Security number.”

Employee Resistance

While the idea of using biometrics initially faced resistance by district workers, their concerns were not about invasion of privacy.

Employees already go through rigorous background checks, so they saw biometrics as something similar, said Thomas F. Doyle, the president of Local 1201, a branch of the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers, which represents the district’s maintenance, food-service, and other employees.

Instead, they were afraid they would be exposed to diseases through the machines. “If a person had a contagious disease of any kind, and if they had an open cut, we questioned if that was transferable,” Mr. Doyle said. “The school district contacted the city health department, who said the risk was extremely minimal to nonexistent.”

Philadelphia initially spent $1.6 million for the system’s installation, software, hardware, and upkeep. Mr. McGlinchy said the district has saved time and money since rolling out the new system, but he couldn’t estimate how much.

Peter DiMaria, the executive director of Accu-Time, said that companies can possibly see a return on their investment in the equipment in under a year, depending on factors such as the number of machines employed, and how many workers had been abusing the previous time-management system.

Despite the potential benefits of the new technology, its use with teachers worries Principal Barbara Buckley-Deni.

Her teachers at the 709-student Albert M. Greenfield School already must sign in at their school’s front office at the start of a school day.

Biometrics, she said, “could be rather damaging [to teacher morale]. It sends the message that we can’t be trusted. I don’t see the need for it. If you don’t really need it, then why have it?”

‘Problems and Advantages’

Some school safety experts, however, suggest that biometrics could also be an effective risk-reduction tool and help protect students. That’s one reason Florida is considering the use of it in schools across the state.

State education officials are researching how fingerprint readers could help schools streamline student transportation and ensure that students get on the right buses, said Adam Shores, a spokesman for the state department of education. Use of the technology, which would be installed on or near school buses, would begin in four to five years.

“As technology advances and becomes available, we want to look at ways we can make schools run more efficiently,” Mr. Shores said. “This also helps to ensure the safety and security of students. It gives an extra measure of precaution.”

But school districts need to do their homework if they’re considering employing biometrics, especially for student use, said Edwin C. Darden, the senior staff attorney for the Alexandria, Va.- based National School Boards Association. The NSBA does not have a formal position on biometrics use.

Districts first need an airtight privacy policy in place and must be familiar with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Mr. Darden said. If districts have taken those steps, then finger scanning is not much different from student identification cards, he said.

“The key difference is that you’re taking it out of the physical realm and putting it into the electronic realm,” Mr. Darden said.

Still, he advised schools to answer questions such as: Will this information be shared with others, such as the police? Will this change the climate of schools, which must operate in an environment of trust?

“It really is new, and I don’t think there’s anyone anywhere who’s thought of all the implications of it,” Mr. Darden said. “As the technology grows and schools start to use it, we’ll have more experience. But you really need to think about the problems and advantages that might come out of it.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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