IT Infrastructure & Management

Iowa Law Ends Use of Finger-Scan Technology

By Catherine Gewertz — September 07, 2005 3 min read
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A little-noticed Iowa law, designed to protect children by forbidding schools to collect their fingerprints, has halted the use of new technology that district leaders say has improved cafeteria and library operations.

About a dozen of Iowa’s 365 school districts have had to stop using a scanning system in which children press an index finger onto an imaging pad capable of recognizing the fingertip. The systems have been used most commonly in place of lunch-line and library bar-code cards, and sometimes on buses, as a way to detect whether children are missing.

District officials who have invested in the new technology argue that it offers many advantages and poses no danger of unwarranted governmental intrusion into children’s lives. Some local administrators have urged their state legislators to change the law to enable them to resume using the scanning devices.

“This was a poor piece of legislation enacted without a thorough understanding of school operations and what the system does,” said Mike Book, the superintendent of the 4,500-student Burlington Community School District in southeastern Iowa, which began using the fingertip-recognition system in its three middle schools last year and had planned to introduce it in its high school this year.

Stephanie Schwenke lifts her finger off the biometric-scan pad as an image of her fingertip appears on screen during lunch at Cumberland-Anita-Massena Middle School in Massena, Iowa, in 2003. Districts in Iowa have stopped using such equipment because of a new law that bars schools from fingerprinting students.

Changes to Be Sought

Signed May 20 by Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, the law bars government entities from fingerprinting children. There are a few exceptions, such as when fingerprinting is required by a court order, or when a parent permits it to help locate a missing child.

The law, modeled after a measure enacted in Michigan in 1985, was prompted by a complaint from one of Republican state Rep. Tom Sands’ constituents, who was concerned that the local school district had begun using the fingertip-recognition technology in its cafeterias.

“As technology evolves, it’s a concern that even though all good intentions may take us down a road, we have to be careful,” Mr. Sands said in an interview last week. “They’re still minors. Whether they should be fingerprinted and put into a system is questionable.”

But Thomas G. Courtney, a Democratic senator who voted for the measure, now plans to seek changes to the law in the 2006 legislative session, which begins in January. The practical effects of the measure, which sailed through the legislature and was signed by the governor in 11 days, were not adequately understood by lawmakers, said Sen. Courtney, a former Burlington school board member.

“This bill was like mom and apple pie,” he said. “We all said, ‘How could this be bad? It protects our kids from Big Brother.’ Then I saw there were problems with it. I’m not sure we’ve saved anyone, and I think we’ve hurt more people than we’ve helped.”

Jeff Berger, the Iowa Department of Education’s legislative liaison, said the bill “scooted right through the legislature on a public-safety agenda, and wasn’t tracked very well until the smoke cleared.”

David Roed, the technology coordinator for the 750-student West Burlington Independent School District, oversaw the $6,000 purchase and the operation of six of the biometric devices in the libraries and cafeterias of the district’s two schools last year.

Lunch and library lines got noticeably shorter, he said. In the cafeteria, the biometric pads facilitated correct charges by instantly showing if the carrier was a student or staff member, or was entitled to free or reduced-priced meals, he said, and spared the district the cost of scores of lost cards.

The new law is based on a groundless fear of misuse, Mr. Roed contends. The system does not take a fingerprint in the usual sense, he said, but instead electronically measures the ridges and dimensions of a fingertip.

The bottom line, Mr. Book added, is that those electronic measurements can’t effectively be used outside the school system. “They’re not even stored in the computer, so if law enforcement comes in and says, ‘I want this one,’ we couldn’t even give it to them,” he said.

Even as some officials hope for a revision in the law, others advocate caution in making changes. Rep. Sands, the bill’s sponsor, said he was “not closed-minded” on the issue, but would need to be convinced that sufficient safeguards were in place to protect children in an age of increasing Internet-based scams and identity theft.

Ben Stone, the executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, which supports the law, said that it “may be comforting now” to say that scan technology doesn’t lend itself to misuse. But sometimes it doesn’t become apparent until too late that unintended applications of technology can cause harm. “People need to be wary of the idea that technology is always cool and great,” he said. “We need some old-fashioned American skepticism.”

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