Does fingerprinting students at cafeteria lunch counters violate student privacy?
1. Latest DevelopmentsIn Spring 2007, school district officials in Taunton, Massachusetts began implementing a voluntary fingerprinting system for students buying cafeteria meals. A similar system is already in place in several other New England school districts.
2. What's All the Fuss About?Under the system, electronic cafeteria accounts are linked to student fingerprints. When a student goes to the lunch counter, s/he places a finger on an electronic scanning device, which instantly brings up the student's record and charges the cafeteria meal to it.
There are considerable advantages to the fingerprinting system:
- It reduces the amount of time involved in purchasing a cafeteria meal.
- It allows students eligible for the free lunch program to participate in the program without other students' knowledge.
- It alerts cafeteria workers to any food allergies the student might have.
In the Taunton district, there are also some measures that are taken to protect student privacy:
- The program is voluntary. No student is required to participate.
- Fingerprints are encoded as a series of numbers before being stored in the database.
- The database is not accessible to the general public.
The program is not without its disadvantages, however. Among other things:
- Large fingerprint databases present a remarkable opportunity for identity theft.
- The program is not truly voluntary because students are not often in a position to make decisions about their own privacy. This is why many web sites are prohibited from selling personal information contributed by users younger than 13.
- Because there is no mechanism in place to "wipe" the database on a regular basis, it is conceivable that the fingerprints could comprise part of a government record on the student.
5. Where It StandsCafeteria fingerprinting systems have already been banned in several states, and Massachusetts legislators are considering a similar policy.