A pressure group has warned of worsening threats to children's rights in the UK from biometric and tracking technologies.
ARCH, Action on Rights for Children, is a not-for-profit organisation run by a group of concerned citizens, including a Professor of Childhood Studies and the borough citizenship coordinator for Tower Hamlets.
Also on the board is the director of the Phoenix Education Trust, "a small national charity which promotes education in which all members of the school community [including pupils] have a voice and real power".
ARCH is concerned that UK schools, parents and educational authorities are too inclined to use tech-based solutions without considering the consequences. In particular, they believe that use of biometric ID systems in schools is getting out of hand, warning of the danger inherent in routinely recording and storing children's fingerprints - or identifiable signatures derived from them.
According to the report they have lately issued:
The fingerprint itself is not stored... Each time a child touches the scanner another template is created and run through the database to check for a near match... Britain is the only country in Europe to use biometric technology extensively in schools.
There are undoubtedly data security implications for the use of biometric systems. Police are able to access school databases to aid in the investigation of crime... A fingerprint is for life and... cannot be replaced as if it were a PIN number... Manufacturers' assurances that data is encrypted are likely to become meaningless with developments in IT and increased computing speed.
Biometric vendors and schools themselves have repeatedly claimed that fingerprints cannot be reconstructed from templates, but even if this were not open to debate, it is a red herring.
The Reg spoke to Terri Dowty, director of ARCH and one of the authors of the report (the other was Pippa King, "a concerned parent who doesn't want her children to live in 1984 type society".)
Ms Dowty felt that parents should encourage their children not to give out unique, lifetime identifiers such as fingerprints for "low-level purposes" such as running school libraries or attendance registers. That said, she also expressed scepticism as to whether fingerprints would ever work in high-level applications such as the proposed National ID cards, as it was trivially easy to copy people's real fingerprints - let alone templates.
So perhaps there's no great need to worry, as fingerprint-backed ID will surely be a total failure?
Dowty was having none of it.
"We don't know for certain that we shouldn't get worried," she said.
The other concern regarding biometrics was that police would be able to search school fingerprint records and so place individual children at crime scenes, or simply use the attendance register to check their whereabouts at given times.
Of course, the plods could use ordinary paper registers generated from rollcalls, too; children are already subject to a fairly intrusive degree of monitoring. Also, in serious cases, police already carry out mass voluntary fingerprinting or DNA sampling of possible suspects in a given area - those who refuse to give their prints get looked into more closely. But it's fair to say that school or national kid-print databases could make the plods' lives easier.
The report also warns of the dangers inherent in such technologies as GPS or RFID-embedded school uniforms, and tracking by mobile phone or other portable device. Dowty said these technologies would be trivially easy for older children to circumvent, so that in fact they offered very little to their users. However, she said the real danger was not so much in the technology as the mindset that went with it. According to the report:
The potential for children to become habituated to accept a far higher level of surveillance than society now tolerates is considerable...
The [voluntary industry code] discourages the over-emphasis of ‘stranger danger’, but it remains a feature of advertising material. Abduction by a stranger remains rare.
By contrast a child is over 200 times more likely to be killed or injured when walking or cycling down the street, and yet some [tracking] products are aimed at very young children, implying that it is acceptable for them to be out alone at an age when few would be able to cross a busy road safely. There is a risk that parents may be lulled into a false sense of security.
While tracking was unlikely to actually work on a non-compliant older child, Ms Dowty argued that it sent the wrong message to parents of youngsters.
"It could make parents feel that it is acceptable to let four-year-olds out of the home unsupervised," she said. "A tracking device won't keep your child safe from traffic accidents."
ARCH believes that children themselves - not their parents - should give consent to being tracked, just as is supposed to be the case with adults (unless the adults fall afoul of a spook or copper with a warrant).
"We feel that if a child is too young to meaningfully consent to being tracked, they shouldn't be unsupervised," said Dowty.
ARCH also seemed to suggest that kid-tracking would be a goldmine for paedophiles - even though abduction by strangers is "rare".
The voluntary code does not include any requirement that those with access to children’s location details have background checks carried out... The potential for misuse or corrupt disclosure of child location information presents a significant threat to children’s safety, particularly... where information is given to a person who may commit offences against a child.
The message seems to be that you should indeed bubblewrap your kids, but do it yourself or have it done by people you trust*. ®
*Yes, we know this is the very group most likely to commit serious abuse of your child. Interpret that how you like. This correspondent, as a dad himself, is just going to calm down a bit, personally. If an ignorant rabble like our parents managed to bring us up, I expect we'll cope now it's our turn. Despite the deadly threat from PERVERTS, even ones using NEW TECHNOLOGY.