Schools put the brakes on facial recognition scheme for kids buying lunch

UK regulators swooped in before the program gained full momentum.

Schools in the United Kingdom have paused the rollout of facial recognition scans in cafeterias following backlash from data watchdogs and privacy advocates.

Last week, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), the UK's data and privacy regulator, intervened after nine schools in North Ayrshire, Scotland, began scanning student faces to take payment for school lunches. 

At the time, more schools were expected to follow suit. The scheme was defended as a cashless, quick, and contactless means of payment in light of COVID-19. 

However, the ICO and privacy outfits were quick to note that in a time where law enforcement is roundly criticized for using the same technology on the streets, introducing it in schools may be unnecessary. 

Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo said:

"It's normalizing biometric identity checks for something that is mundane. You don't need to resort to airport-style [technology] for children getting their lunch."

The ICO told The Guardian that the organization would contact North Ayrshire council to talk about data protection laws concerning minors and to see if a "less intrusive" payment option was available. 

This could include contactless payment on cards or fingerprint readers, the former of which is widely used in the United Kingdom. 

As reported by the BBC, the local council has "temporarily paused" the program, while one of the schools has completely closed down the scheme. 

"Whilst we are confident the new facial recognition system is operating as planned, we felt it prudent to revert to the previous PIN (personal identification number) system while we consider the inquiries received," the North Ayrshire Council tweeted

One of the companies named as involved in the rollout, CRB Cunninghams, describes the technology as "a contactless biometric method that enhances the speed of service and retains the security of fingerprints."

In other facial recognition news, several weeks ago, the European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution barring law enforcement in the region from using facial recognition technologies. While not legally binding, the parliamentary body is currently working on rules to rein in the use of facial recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) across both the public and private sectors. 

ZDNet has reached out to CRB Cunninghams for comment. 

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