• United States



Schools scan students’ irises, then notify parents of opt out choice afterward

Jun 03, 20135 mins
Access ControlBiometricsData and Information Security

When no parent opted out or called about a Florida school district scanning students' irises, why didn't that raise a red flag with anyone in the Polk Country school system?

If you sent a letter to parents stating that you were planning to scan the irises of their children, of students who are also minors, and not one single parent called for more information about the “Eye Swipe Nano” program, and not one single parent chose to opt their child out, wouldn’t that strike you as exceedingly strange?

That scenario is too strange for me to accept as I would definitely be one of the parents calling with a bunch of geeky questions, like how long will the data be stored? How is the iris scan data secured? What third parties have access to the data about minors? But school officials found nothing suspicious about no parents calling or opting out of iris scans at three different public Polk County, Florida, schools – Bethune Academy (K-5), Daniel Jenkins Academy (grades 6-12), and Davenport School of the Arts (K-5, middle, and high school). The fact that no parent contacted the school should have raised a red flashing alert to at least one person in the Polk County school system.

The reason no parent complained, opted out, or asked for more information was because parents did not receive the letter until after the scans had happened. As a pilot security program to be tested on about 17 school buses, Polk County schools allowed Stanley Convergent Security Solutions to scan students’ irises. Parents were alerted in a letter sent “on Friday, May 24, although the letters were dated for delivery the day before. The letters stated that the scanning program would begin on May 20, and allow for students to opt out. However, all students were scanned before any letters were sent home.”

The Eyelock iris identity management system would scan the child’s iris as he or she got on or off the school bus, and then text the parents with that information. The video says this system is not vulnerable to iris spoofing. Rob Davis, senior director of support services for Polk County Schools, said, “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t have a parent that is frantic about, ‘hey my child was supposed to be home by three o’clock, and I just got off work. It’s five o’clock and they’re nowhere to be found’.”

After parents found out their children had been scanned without them being notified, it hit the fan. Davis said all iris data collected has since been destroyed. But one parent on Facebook brought up some good points. If parents received the letter on Friday after the school officials had gone home, and it was a long weekend with Monday being Memorial Day holiday, “when exactly did this program get suspended?” The program wasn’t the problem. “It’s the invasion of my family’s Constitutional right to privacy that is the problem, as well as the school allowing a private company access to my child without my consent or permission. This is stolen information, and we cannot retrieve it.”

Another parent told The Ledger, “These people sent out an opt-out form to watch the presidential address, but they can’t notify the parents of children when they are acquiring extremely personal information about minors? Companies that house this type of information are notorious for selling the data to other companies or even turning it over to the government. This is all a bit ‘Big Brother’ and parents should be quite disturbed.”

An apology letter has since been sent out to parents. Davis told Fox 5, “I’ll take full responsibility for it.” Yet, according to Michelle Malkin, Davis blamed a secretary who had a “medical emergency” for the “mistake” of the notification letters not being sent out to parents on May 17.

Davis believes tracking the students’ movements via their iris is a great idea. He said, “Within seconds, we could tell parents, ‘Yes, they got on bus No. 0750. They got on the bus at the high school at 2:05; they arrived at their bus stop at 2:45.” Davis added that the only information “connected to a student’s iris number would be their name, identification number, bus number and eventually, parents’ contact information.”

In fact, Davis hopes the school district goes ahead with the pilot program at the start of next year. Next time, the parents will receive the letter and have time to opt out. “This was never supposed to be forced on anyone,” he explained. “It was an option for parents.”

Next time, however, the school district will surely not be so silly as to think not one single parent will object.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.