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Privacy concerns could stretch lunch lines

Aaliyah Jackson, 12, right, has her palm scanned at checkout while purchasing lunch at Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg on Thursday.

Dirk Shadd/tbt*

Aaliyah Jackson, 12, right, has her palm scanned at checkout while purchasing lunch at Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg on Thursday.

There is less time than there used to be for school lunch, and that is not an accident. Schools are shaving off minutes to gain classroom time as test scores increasingly determine their reputations.

But less time at lunch means less time to eat. So three years ago, Pinellas County Schools implemented a new system to cut down the time students spend in the lunch line: They took pictures of students' palms.

Federal law requires schools to identify each student who receives lunch. The computerized system instantly converted the unique vein patterns in each student's hand to a string of numbers identifying the student and linking them to meal accounts. Now it took only two seconds for a student to register for lunch, rather than the 34 seconds it took to enter a four-digit PIN code.

But was the time saved for lunch worth introducing children as young as 11 to biometrics, or data harvesting of human characteristics and traits?

No, said the Florida Legislature. Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill forbidding schools from collecting scans of students' palms, eyes or fingerprints.

"You have privacy concerns, you have the concern of desensitizing children to giving up information," said Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, who proposed Senate Bill 188, entitled Education Data Privacy.

"And then there's the issue of access," she says. "Who can access this information? Can it be breached, can it be sold?"

Hukill says she first became aware of biometrics in schools when Polk County was caught last spring scanning students' irises when they boarded school buses without ever notifying parents. Polk stopped amid the outcry. Then she found out about Pinellas's lunch program, and says she was appalled. "You don't need to be scanning kids to give them a sandwich," she says.

Lynn Geist, the assistant director of food service in Pinellas schools, says that's not a fair take on Pinellas' system. Everyone was notified, she says, and the pictures of palms are instantly deleted. Nothing is stored, so nothing could be breached.

"We actually had more fraud when we had PIN pads," Geist says. "People would share their number, or a child would be in line behind them and see what their PIN was."

Pinellas has invested about $200,000 for equipment, software and licenses since the palm scanning system was installed in 2011, Geist said. The district spent an additional $100,000 on installation, training and enrolling students. Now it will try to sell the scanners to recover some of the costs, Geist said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, worked with Hukill to pass an amendment giving Pinellas until next June to phase in a replacement system. Geist said the district likely will return to PIN pads by next spring, but she did not have an estimate of the cost.

In response to Hukill's bill, Geist traveled to Tallahassee to testify before the Senate Education Committee. She spoke of how students now wait five minutes in the lunch line instead of 10. She told them that elementary school students, the youngest children, weren't involved in the palm-scanning because their hands were too small.

But alarmed by the Polk incident and reading headlines about the security breach at Target stores, the Legislature put the brakes on Pinellas's time-saving system.

Privacy concerns could stretch lunch lines 05/25/14 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2014 7:53pm]
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