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Using facial recognition on kids paying for school lunches is proof that Britain’s surveillance creep has gone too far

Damian Wilson
Damian Wilson
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
Using facial recognition on kids paying for school lunches is proof that Britain’s surveillance creep has gone too far
Scottish schools have turned to extreme measures more befitting a totalitarian state to cut payment times at the school canteen. But at what cost to the privacy and civil liberties of unsuspecting students?

Just because we have the technology to turn an image of a face into a digital signature really doesn’t mean we should applaud the latest development in Scotland, where several thousand students have been signed up to use facial recognition to pay for their meals at the school canteen.

While lucky David Swanston – the managing director of CRB Cunninghams, the company that has sold a local authority this Lamborghini Countach solution to a Nissan Micra problem – must be planning his holiday to the Maldives, the surveillance creep of this latest project unsettles me.

I cannot be the only one to wonder how long those canteen queues must be to warrant this sort of infringement on the personal liberties of Scottish teenagers. Because I’m not sure students should be subject to facial-recognition technology simply for completing the mundane task of paying for their lunch, or for that matter, anything else. Maybe they should be scanned as they board the bus. As they come through the school gates. As they enter the classroom. Where does this all stop?

The local council has used Covid security as cover for this unnerving innovation. However, the avoidance of notes and coins has long been achieved through the widespread use of alternatives such as cash cards, PINs and even fingerprint devices in schools.

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It’s hard to agree that Mr Swanston’s claim “we need fast throughput at the point of sale” – with the average transaction time reduced to just five seconds per pupil – signifies any sort of progress towards the betterment of the educational experience or, for that matter, mankind.

Sure, the new tech might make buying lunch fractionally quicker, but at the cost of unquestioning compliance with a practice more befitting one of those totalitarian regimes we like to chastise for abusing the freedoms of its citizens through constant, unnecessary monitoring.

Parents in North Ayrshire, where this scheme is being rolled out at nine high schools, might have bought into this over-excited, hyper-ventilating, techno-gasm, but if the idea moves south of the border, there could well be more pushback.

The Biometrics Commissioner for England and Wales, Fraser Sampson, told one newspaper that just because schools can deploy the technology does not mean they should. “If there is a less intrusive way, that should be used,” he said.

Of course, there is also the Protection of Freedoms Act, which insists on explicit consent from a parent or guardian before a school uses a child’s biometric details and offers some protection in England and Wales. It doesn’t apply in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

But there is the European Union’s data act, generally referred to as GDPR, to which we – Scotland included – are still subject, under which the use of facial recognition in schools is in contravention of the strict use of biometrics with regard to minors. 

This is not all about “fast throughput at the point of sale”. Not by a long shot. And, looking at the online coverage a small Scottish council has attracted in making that decision, maybe it will realise there are bigger issues at stake.

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As a child, tech pioneer Steve Jobs recalled, he once read an article about the energy efficiency a bicycle afforded a human, as opposed to having to rely on Shanks’ pony. He later mused that making an advance in technology was like creating a “bicycle of the mind” – developing tools that enabled humans to achieve feats way beyond our inherent abilities.

The introduction of facial recognition in processing a Scottish student’s payment for their lunchtime jacket potato in five seconds flat might have achieved a feat beyond our inherent abilities. But it’s encroaching on their civil liberties, with minimal gain for anyone other than the business that’s picked up the contract.

And one thing’s for certain, it’s no bicycle of the mind.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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