I'm not a Trekkie, but I have to recognize that all those hours of watching Captain James T. Kirk being beamed aboard the Starship Enterprise did foster a love of sci-fi and sci-fi inspired tech. Today, however, unlike the 1970s, science fiction is converging into science fact and it is clear that our legal system is being outpaced by technology. And while some Americans tweet about North Kardashian West, in other circles what's trending on Twitter is an international conversation about meta data, biometrics, digital rights and what constitutes a civil right in the information age. Unlike prior debates about privacy, what makes this one so fascinating is that the information being collected is never truly disposed of. Similarly, we the 'users' are becoming more and more desentisized to the collection of this data and what it says about who we are, what we do and who we associate with. Personally, what concerns me the most is that while the harvesting of information is becoming routine, the State of Florida continues to lack the legislative infrastructure necessary to safeguard technologically birthed information such as biometrics.
Case in point, recently in Polk County, a series of mistakes by the Polk County School District's staff led to the collection of biometric information of several hundreds of students without the consent of their parents or knowledge of top school officials. It began in May, when the school district sent a letter to parents informing them about a pilot transportation program that would use an iris scan to track users. The letter indicated that parents could opt their children out of the pilot but by the time parents received the letter the district-approved electronic security company had already scanned the eyes of over 750 students. Without a school board policy on biometrics and/or a state statute to regulate the status of the information gathered, the district attempted, with little success, to secure consent after the fact. The Polk County School Board attorney referred to the incident as "almost a comedy of errors." Not surprisingly, when it made national news, no one was laughing.
Nevertheless, even with these types of headlines the use of biometrics in schools is ever increasing because biometric identification can provide security, accountability and most importantly, speed; the latter being important because of the ever increasing accountability standards and demands on student time and district resources. In Pinellas County, for example, one of the first school districts in the nation to use palm scans in the lunchroom, a system that uses an infrared beam to scan the vein pattern in a student's palm, has resulted in faster checkout and shorter lines. Notably however, unlike the Los Angeles Unified School District, who made biometric identification compulsory in their speedy lunchrooms, Pinellas offered students the option of a 10-digit identification number as an alternative to the palm scan. And while the program resulted in few privacy complaints and faster moving lunch lines, sadly it was approved and commenced without the establishment of a board policy on the use and maintenance of biometric information being collected.
On the other end of spectrum, Seminole County's School District recently terminated a biometric based lunch system that used fingerprints to identify students even though the system increased serving line speed from 8.5 seconds per student (sps) to 6.5 sps at elementary schools; and 26.5 sps to 16.5 sps at secondary schools because it was too expensive. The program was replaced with a lower tech system that matches face recognition to the student's account number.
This week at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, I have proposed a board item for the establishment of a policy on the collection, use, maintenance and destruction of biometric information. Specifically I am asking the board to consider a policy that requires; (1) annual written consent of a parent or legal guardian for the collection and/or use of a child's biometric information; (2) that students' biometric data be kept confidential and exempt from public records disclosure; (3) that students who opt-out be provided a non-biometrical alternative; (4) that students' biometric data be destroyed 90 days upon the student graduating from high school or withdrawing from the district; (5) that no students' biometric data will be sold and/or otherwise disclosed to other entities including government agencies with a subpoena and that (6) all biometric data collected at Miami-Dade County Schools facilities by the district, vendors and/or contractors of minors and/or adults will be safeguarded from disclosure, fraud and/or misuse.
But this is the first small step, since we are only just recognizing the possible uses of biometrics. Nevertheless, there remains the need for a Florida Statute to establish a statewide framework for biometric data that delineates, among other things, the penalties for the misuse, misappropriation and improper sale of biometric information. Till then, we will all have to continue weighing the conveniences of biometric identification with the risks associated with the potential misuse of these permanent markers. Pending future legislation, today I have to agree with my favorite half Vulcan, Mr. Spock, and say that "there are always alternatives."