Welfare

Elementary Biometrics

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A technological revolution is brewing in an unlikely locale: elementary school cafeterias. In a few Pennsylvania schools, kids can now pay for lunches with their fingerprints. It's one of the first consumer applications of biometrics, an industry that offers an uneasy tradeoff, some argue, between efficiency and privacy. At schools such as Welsh Valley, in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, children have been speeding through the lunch line. They press their finger to a scanner, which records 17 grid points that are then used to identify their personal school lunch accounts. (The actual fingerprints are not recorded.)

Officials love the system: It's fast, kids can't lose their lunch money, and it helps schools comply with a federal law protecting students on the free lunch program from their classmates' scrutiny. The system is optional, and only a few parents have declined to let their kids participate in it.

Such popularity suggests a future in which biometrics are a daily part of doing business—assuming that parents are as willing to offer up their own fingerprints as their children's. The technology has also turned up in welfare offices and at international customs desks, and as it gets cheaper, it could crop up all over the private sector, perhaps ultimately rendering the debit card obsolete. (Sampling of technologies available.)

But from a privacy-rights perspective, that scenario can seem unsettling. Anyone who has longed for the days before Social Security numbers followed you everywhere can appreciate the costs of a technology that identifies users with a unique, permanent physical characteristic such as a fingerprint.

Biometrics advocates argue that numerical fingerprint data—remember, these systems don't file the print itself—are actually a lot easier to keep private than traditional records. "You can't take a look at a biometric, which is a string of ones and zeros, and find out who somebody is," a representative from the International Biometrics Association told the Associated Press.

If you aren't ready to believe him, at least you can still opt out. In that, one hopes, the Pennsylvania program will set the standard.