August 23, 2022 - 7:15am

It started with fingerprinting our kids in schools in the early 2000’s for library book withdrawal in primary education. Two decades later we have evolved to ‘mood indexing’ children in ‘experimental hybrid learning rooms’.

In plain English: there are systems in UK classrooms that log pupils attentiveness using biometric face and bodily data, aligned with artificial intelligence, to index a student’s lesson engagement within the classroom. This is a completely disproportionate and unfair balance of exchange for accessing an everyday, essential activity in a school. It desensitises children to the use of their biometrics — the most irreplaceable data they will ever own. The only other country to use this type of monitoring in their schools is China.

The EdTech community boasts that their ability to data scrape from students in education exceeds that of Google using data from search engines and their other products. The EdTech apps that a child uses, in the physical or online school environment, can relate how quickly students turn pages in an e-book, which areas of maths they move slowly on, plus meta data such as the times logged onto apps and when homework was e-handed in.

Following the Protection of Freedoms Act in 2012 schools were required to ask for parent’s consent before taking student’s biometric data. The UK was the first country to introduce such legislation, but then we were one of the first countries to adopt biometric technology in schools.

Fingerprint and facial biometric systems are sparsely used in the US. Data regulators in Sweden, France, Bulgaria and Poland are banning and fining schools for using fingerprint and facial recognition biometric systems.

GDPR, which was codified into our Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA), confirms the unbalance of the biometric data relationship between school and child — yet our data regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), has not taken similar steps to equivalent regulators in Europe.

So far, the intervention on this issue has come from the Department of Education which released updated advice in July 2022 for schools using biometrics systems.

So how come the Department of Education is determining what biometric is acceptable for use with our children when Data Protection and GDPR state clearly that it is not acceptable when another less intrusive form of identification is available? And why — after pausing food purchasing facial recognition systems in schools in North Ayrshire, Scotland last year because of the question of legality under DPA and GDPR — has it taken the ICO 10 months of investigation on this with no comment yet?

If the ICO doesn’t quickly offer an opinion on the use of facial recognition in schools, the direction of travel for biometric systems will move outside the classroom, from the canteen and library, to what Intel calls ‘experimental hybrid learning rooms’ — which will be used to log pupil’s wellbeing and engagement, or in the language of EdTech, ‘Mood indexing’ them.

Outstanding questions on the use of biometric systems in British schools will hopefully be answered soon. The ICO is due to publish a letter to North Ayrshire Council on their website regarding the legalities of their use of facial recognition systems in schools.

One would hope this happens before schools reopen in September so school leaders fully understand whether they are operating within data protection laws. Surely we should be doing better than China when it comes to spying on school children.

This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared on Pippa King’s Substack newsletter.

Pippa King is a writer, and the author of the Pippa’s Newsletter Substack.