News & Views - Savantor

Fingerprint scanning on the menu

Friday, 01 April 2005

-Kids could go hungry while parents get billed for the wrong child-


Moves to fingerprint pupils so that parents are sent monthly bills for their school dinners could result in chaos in the canteen warns leading cards payment consultancy Savantor. Dirt, cuts and grazes on children's hands could have huge implications on the effectiveness of this forward thinking means of identification. Savantor is urging schools to take into account that fingerprinting in this environment is not a seamless solution, and advises that additional measures must be considered if school children are to be guaranteed their lunchtime meals and parents sure they're getting the right bills sent to them.


While Savantor agrees that this system of fingerprint biometrics works best in closed systems such as schools with a controlled and fairly small population, the school canteen environment, where grubby and grazed hands are likely, is far from ideal and could have major implications not just on the smooth day to day running of the canteen, but on parents' pockets too.


Steve Carter, senior consultant at Savantor explains: "Using fingerprint identification with children can be tricky. As many school lunches such as sandwiches and burgers require the children to eat with their hands, fingerprints may not be identified clearly by the readers if their hands are dirty which could result in bedlam."


Biometric measurement is prone to errors in both directions. False positives, whereby one child's fingerprints would access another child's account could potentially mean that parents are presented with bills and food lists that have not been racked up by their child but by another pupil.  The other end of the scale is the false negative that would deny a valid user access.


Steve added: "In most cases, you can improve the error rate on one of these criteria by adjusting the sensitivity of the measurements, but this is inevitably going to be at the price of accepting a worse error rate on the other criteria.  Normally it is the need for security in the system that determines which way an organisation should lean in setting the sensitivity of the devices. For example, most commercial organisations will select a low level of sensitivity to ensure that business is not affected and that customers are not denied the service. In doing this they accept a predictable level of misuse, but when there's even a slight  chance a child could go hungry, any 'risks' really can't be afforded."


This move into fingerprint biometrics is already being pioneered at Humphrey Perkins High in Loughborough. The Live Register system is already used to speed up taking the morning register in classrooms, but pupils will now use the £50,000 custom-built biometric equipment in the canteen to charge parents for meals. The move which was inspired by TV chef Jamie Oliver's campaign for healthier school meals does have several advantages however, and Steve admits he's interested to follow the progress of the school where it's already in action.


"Providing the school has set the levels such that parents don't get hefty bills for someone else's child, this could be a big success. Fingerprinting at the POS in the canteen is cheaper than issuing cards or some other RFID chip token like a key ring fob which are in use elsewhere. It also cuts out the possibility of the child losing the card or having it used fraudulently by the other pupils. Only time will tell whether this method of identification is suitable in a canteen environment."

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