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by Dave Gradijan

Forget Security, Scottish School Uses Biometrics for Health

Oct 26, 20064 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

A Scottish school has turned to biometrics as part of a nationwide push to encourage children to eat healthier meals.

The cafeteria at Todholm Primary School in Paisley, Scotland, has gone cashless, and students are buying lunches by holding their hands over a palm-vein recognition unit produced by Glasgow-based Yarg Biometrics. It’s the first school to use the system. Inside is the same palm-vein scanner from Japan’s Fujitsu that can now be found on thousands of bank cash machines across Japan.

The system relies on an infrared image of the palm of a user’s hand. It reveals the pattern of veins present under the skin, and from this an algorithm can confirm identity of the user. It takes into account identifying features such as the number of veins, their position and the points at which they cross, and offers a higher level of security than competing technologies including voice print, facial recognition, fingerprint recognition and iris scan, according to Fujitsu.

Children in low-income families in Scotland are entitled to receive free school meals, but until now the system has relied on a number of methods, such as the kids presenting different-colored tickets or queuing in a different line, to differentiate those from children who pay for their own meal. As a result, it’s relatively easy to work out which kids are from low-income households, and some students avoid receiving their free meal to escape the stigma that might go with it.

Going cashless will make this difference invisible, but replacement systems involving swipe cards have their own problems with younger children, such as the cards being lost, said Alan Cunningham, managing director of Yarg Biometrics, in an interview. Yarg worked with Fujitsu to develop the palm-vein readers that are used in the school.

Yarg discovered Fujitsu’s palm-vein system a year ago and interfaced it with a keypad and other electronics to form the unit that kids see on the countertop. This is linked with a back office server that can verify the identity of each child and tie in with the food payment system.

At the school in Paisley, there are four units linked to a back office server. Two of the units can be used by children to check their balance, and the other two are installed at the cafeteria checkout. When a student places his or her hand in front of the sensor, the system returns the child’s credit balance within about three seconds. A new version of the unit due shortly will cut this time in half.

It was installed about six weeks ago, and the school so far is very happy with it, he said.

“The kids love it,” said Cunningham. “It’s the whole James Bond thing.”

While the reaction of kids may be positive, the response from privacy groups won’t be known until after the system is officially announced on Thursday. A previous system developed by Yarg for cashless access to school meals was based on a fingerprint technology and drew critics.

“It’s important to emphasize that the information that is used by the system will not be used for other purposes,” said Nicol Stephen, member of the Scottish Parliament, deputy first minister and minister for enterprise and lifelong learning in the Scottish Executive, in an interview.

“If there were any civil-liberties issues, we would want to make sure they were properly addressed and that parents and civil-liberties groups were reassured. We want to make this fun for kids. It should be a quick, fun approach to accessing school lunches,” he said.

Yarg said the system hasn’t raised any serious concerns yet.

“It’s not a fingerprint; it doesn’t have that feel of a fingerprint being stored in a criminal database. I think that is the key,” said Cunningham.

If the system can escape controversy, it could become commonplace. The Scottish Executive wants all 1,800 primary schools across the country to go cashless over the next five years and has earmarked 70 million pounds (US$131 million) for the “Hungry for Success” meals initiative. Yarg says the system can also be extended to room access control and as a way to sign kids into each class they attend.

“We have to be careful on these issues, but equally that shouldn’t prevent us from using new technology,” said Stephen. “It would be a great shame if the current understandable concerns and civil-liberties issues as a result of the terrorism threat led to a failure to be creative and innovative with a scheme in a primary school that is trying to persuade more kids to go to school meals and eat more healthy food.”

By Martyn Williams, IDG News Service (Tokyo Bureau)

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