After privacy concerns were raised in Britain by the data watchdog, a scheme that used facial recognition software to scan students in school canteens is now suspended

After a pilot in Gateshead last last year, nine schools from North Ayrshire (Scotland) became the first to adopt the system on an ongoing basis.

The controversial technology claims to make it easier to pay for meals using cards or fingerprint scanners.

Its rollout was stopped just days after it was launched after privacy groups and the Information Commissioner’s Office raised concerns. The ICO reacted to the plans by advising organisations to adopt a less intrusive approach.

Separately, a school located in Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester has decided to stop rolling out a similar system due to concerns from the ICO about intrusiveness.

Although guidance has been issued by the Department for Education to UK schools about regulation regarding facial recognition technology, it is ultimately up the school. 

The hugely-controversial system has been pitched to make the payment process for meals quicker and more hygienic than using cards or fingerprint scanners (file picture)

This controversial system is designed to make payment for meals quicker and more hygienic by using fingerprint scanners or cards (file image).

Big Brother Watch, a campaign group that had written to schools in North Ayrshire urging them not to continue the scheme, called the decision in North Ayrshire ‘fantastic.

Silkie Carlo, the group’s director, told MailOnline that she welcomed the pause and would urge local councils to ban facial recognition in schools. 

How does facial recognition technology in schools work

Schools are being pitched software that recognizes facial features to increase their lunch payments.

CRB Cunninghams is one of the British companies involved in this technology. They claim that the system works even if pupils wear face masks and that it can be served in just five seconds per pupil. 

The technology scans the faces and then compares them to a database stored on school servers. 

The students using the system need to select their meal then look at the camera and go, which is considered to be a more hygienic approach than card payments and fingerprints.

It also means that pupils don’t need to have any form of identification, such as a card or enter a personal ID number (PIN).

Instantly, the school meal payments are reflected in the cashless accounts of the pupil. 

‘No child should be required to go through border-style identity checks to get a school lunch. We are meant to live in a democracy and not a security society. 

“This is highly sensitive personal data that children should learn to protect and not give away on a whim. 

North Ayrshire Council stated that 97% of children and their parents consented to the new system. The technology can only be used by children if parents opt in.

After the half-term break, the system was introduced and scanned children’s faces at lunchtimes. It checked students against a database of faces stored at school servers.

The council provided the following information to parents: ‘With facial Recognition, pupils simply select their meals, look at camera, and go. It makes it faster and removes any contact at the point-of-sale.

“Pupils no more need to have any form of identification, such as a card, or even a personal identification number (Pin). 

“School meal payments are instantly reflected on the pupil’s cashless account in the same way that any other identification method. 

A North Ayrshire Council spokesperson stated that the contactless payment system which uses facial recognition in secondary schools has been temporarily suspended due to a large number of inquiries.

“While we are confident that our new facial recognition system is working as planned, we felt it prudent not to revert back to the previous PIN (Personal ID Number) system while considering the enquiries received.

‘Pupils who are using facial recognition systems and do not have their PINs will be issued these. We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this and will provide an update in the near future.

North Ayrshire Council (whose offices in Irvine are pictured) said 97 per cent of children or their parents had given consent for the new system

North Ayrshire Council (whose Irvine offices can be seen) stated that 97% had given their consent for the new system.

The school in Ashton-under-Lyne which has dropped its rollout of a similar system is Great Academy Ashton – a decision which principal David Waugh said was in response to comments made by the ICO about the potential intrusiveness.

Controversy surrounds live facial recognition systems around the globe. 

Although live facial recognition systems are becoming more common around the world, they have been plagued by controversy.

The software was used by a Swedish school to track students’ attendance. However, it was stopped after it was discovered that it did not comply with data protection regulations.

Two French schools used the technology for controlling access to the gate. However, the use of the technology was stopped by parents and teachers.

Schools in the US have adopted the tool to provide more secure security after several high-profile school shootings.

New York State banned the software from schools last year until 2022 in order to allow its education department to assess the privacy implications.

The Department of Education in Britain has issued guidance to schools regarding regulation of facial recognition technology use, but ultimately it is up to the school. 

Pippa King, who runs the Biometrics in Schools blog, said earlier this month that European countries were taking the collection of biometric information from children ‘far more seriously’.

She also called for more debate on the subject in Parliament.

He told the BBC: ‘The combined fingerprint and facial recognition system was part of an upgrade to the catering cashless system, so that the time it takes to serve students is reduced, thus giving a better dining experience.

“But, we won’t be using facial recognition aspect.”  

Professor Fraser Sampson, the biometrics and surveillance cameras commissioner for England and Wales, told the BBC that facial recognition should be considered carefully by any public service before using a measure as obvious as facial recognition. 

A spokesperson for the ICO stated that organizations using facial recognition technology (FRT), must adhere to data protection laws before, during, and after their use. Data protection law provides additional protections to children. Organizations should also carefully consider whether collecting biometric information is necessary and proportional before doing so. 

If the same goal can still be achieved in a less intrusive way, organisations should consider using a different approach.

Following our initial inquiries, we understand that North Ayrshire Council made the decision to stop using FRT at schools. Our goal is to ensure children’s data is secure according to law. We will continue to engage the Council on this topic.

“Anyone who believes that their personal data was unlawfully processed can directly complain to the ICO.

CRB Cunninghams, which has offices in Birmingham & Edinburgh, installed the technology in schools in Britain. MailOnline reached out for comment to the firm. 

David Swanston, the company’s managing director, stated to the Financial Times earlier this month that it is the fastest method of recognising someone at a till. It’s faster than a card, and it’s even faster than fingerprints.

“In a secondary school, you have about a 25-minute window to serve potentially 1000 pupils. We need to have high throughput at the point-of-sale.