It’s the first day of school and Matt Miller, director of food services for Penn Cambria schools, sits at a table next to the registration desk, collecting digital images of students’ fingerprints with a portable scanner.

The line of students waiting to be scanned is short; Miller is there mostly to scan students who’ve recently transferred to the district and returning students who must be rescanned due to a growth spurt.

Students tend to need rescanning in the fifth and ninth grades, Miller said, because their fingers have matured to the point where the scanners can no longer quickly identify them.

Students see the scanning, which allows them to purchase school lunches without using cash, as no big deal. It has been a part of their lives for five years now. Of the 3,000 or so students who attend one of Penn Cambria’s five schools, fewer than 1 percent opt out of the scanning system, Miller said. He doesn’t know whether they opt out for religious beliefs or some other reason, but the school doesn’t press for answers.

The Cresson, Pennsylvania, school district isn’t the only one in America using biometric technology in cafeterias. Similar systems are in use at schools all over the country.

Food Service Solutions, the point-of-sale vendor that sold the Penn Cambria district its biometrics scanning system, said its finger-scanning units are in 45 school districts nationwide, scanning approximately 250,000 students daily. Food Service Solutions president Mitch Johns said the finger-scanning systems account for approximately 40 percent of the company’s point-of-sale product sales.

The company is adapting its popular finger-scanning system for other uses, such as checking out books from school libraries and tracking attendance. Some schools, Johns said, are even toying with the idea of installing scanners on school buses to track passengers.

Use of biometric ID systems has been on the rise in the private sector for some time. Companies from Hertz to Pepsi use finger-, hand- or iris-scanning systems to identify employees and sometimes customers. This year, biometrics system revenues will top $928 million, according to the International Biometric Group. In 2004, sales are expected to top $1.5 billion.

Not surprisingly, privacy advocates are worried about the use of biometrics in public schools, where minors are the ones being scanned.

At best, the technology is overkill and a waste of taxpayer money, said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. At worst, it sets a dark precedent, conditioning students at a young age to embrace the idea of Big Brother-style biometric tracking. “If ever there was a generation that would not oppose a government system for universal ID, it’s this one,” he said.

Hoofnagle said that, for every biometrics system, there has to be a backup. Penn Cambria students who’ve opted out of the finger-scanning system can just key in their student ID numbers to participate in the cashless cafeteria system. If the scanners aren’t functioning properly, or if the computer running the scanning software is down, students and administrators rely on other means to buy their lunches and check out library books — usually, recording transactions by hand. So Hoofnagle questions the need for the biometrics system — which costs about $5,000 for schools to implement — in the first place.

Those who support school use of biometrics say the technology is largely misunderstood, that the finger scanners don’t record actual fingerprints, just a numerical image representing 26 points on an individual’s index finger. Because the recorded image is just a string of ones and zeroes, it’s of no use to law enforcement, said Bob Engen, president of Educational Biometric Technology, a firm in Caledonia, Minnesota, that has been installing finger-scanning systems in schools and universities since 1996.

Engen said speed, not security or privacy, seems to be students’ biggest concern with the system. The fingerprint-recognition systems tend to run slowly — slower than manually punching in a number, for instance — if a school is using a computer that is more than a few years old. Additionally, large student populations can slow the system since it has to run through every stored image before identifying the best match.

Parker Memorial Elementary School in Tolland, Connecticut, implemented a fingerprint-recognition system in May 2002 that has proven useful for tracking student expenses. Parents have long had the option of prepaying for students’ lunches on a semester basis. The difference now, said lunch program coordinator Jackie Schipke, is that parents only pay for lunches their kids actually eat, thanks to more-accurate reporting. Now, students can also buy lunches on credit, meaning that even if their debit accounts are empty, the system can tally money parents owe.

“Are the lines moving as fast as we’d hoped? I don’t think so,” said Schipke.

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