By SUE REID 11th October 2007
Fionna Elliot does not look like a firebrand. A hard-working mother, she has never had the time or the interest to dabble in politics.
Yet when the local primary school wrote to her saying they were about to fingerprint her son Alexander, eight, and daughter Jessica, only six, she was furious.
The 29-year-old housewife from Balby in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, saw it as a dangerous step towards a Big Brother society.
She didn’t want her children fingerprinted and she marched off to Waverley School, five minutes from the family’s home, to protest to the headmistress.
“The school said they were taking the thumb print of every child,” Fiona explained at her neat, semi-detached home this week.
“The new electronic mapping system would allow children to borrow books from the library.
“The headmistress said it would be exciting for the pupils and help them develop a love of books and reading.”
Each child’s fingerprint would replace their library card.
Placing their fingerprint on a scanner would open their computer file with records of the books they had borrowed.
The argument is that this would dramatically simplify record-keeping.
But Fiona Elliott is not prepared to accept it.
“I told the headmistress that the biometric data could easily be stolen by identity thieves or used by the State for some dubious purpose,” she says.
“My children are not terrorists or criminals and their fingerprints should not be collected at such a young age.”
If some choose to write this off as alarmist, she doesn’t care.
For she is one of many parents appalled by what they see as another deeply worrying inroad by the State into our personal liberty.
Britain is already the most snooped-on society in the world.
It has more than a fifth of the world’s CCTV cameras.
One day all our NHS records may be on a national computer accessible by thousands of health workers.
Ministers have suggested that every British subject should have their DNA placed on a national database.
And already, the State has the DNA records of nearly a million children, some as young as five.
Now the Government is actively encouraging cash-strapped schools – short of teachers, sports facilities and even books – to spend £20,000 or more on fingerprinting systems.
In the short time since the practice began unannounced in 2001, nearly 6,000 pupils have had their ‘dabs’ taken throughout the country.
Every week another 20 schools join the list.
So concerned are parents that, backed by academics and experts on privacy, they have launched a campaign against the fingerprinting of children in schools.
The parents say the fingerprinting is ‘softening up’ children to prepare them for the national introduction of ID cards and to encourage them to hand over precious biometric details without a second thought.
They point out that no other country in Europe routinely fingerprints children and that even communist China has abandoned plans for fingerprinting school pupils because it breaches human rights.
They quote the Minister for Schools and Learning, Jim Knight, who this summer admitted that the police can simply help themselves to the children’s fingerprints if they are trying to solve a crime.
How many others, the parents ask, will have access to the fingerprint databases?
But those schools that have introduced the practice say there is nothing to worry about.
The data, unique to every pupil, will never be stolen or spied on, they argue.
This is simply a safe, easy and fun way for the children to take home library books or buy lunch at the school canteen. It does away with pieces of paper and dinner vouchers.
It saves time.
Parents are unconvinced. Some, among them a Suffolk filmmaker called Jonathan Adams, are considering legal action to stop schools in their tracks.
“Litigation may be the only way forward,” he says.
“We fear they are in breach of the Human Rights Act, the Data Protection Act and the European Commission laws that safeguard the child.
“We have sought initial advice from lawyers.
“If we won, the individual schools would have to pay a hefty price for ignoring parents’ wishes.
“Many have introduced the fingerprinting of pupils without even asking permission from families.”
He adds: “The law says the collection of personal biometric data must be proportionate to the issue for which it is being used.
“How can it be proportionate to fingerprint a child so he can borrow a library book or order a hot lunch?
“The other question is what is happening to the fingerprints after the child leaves the school.
“The schools insist the data is wiped from the system.
“But you can’t just press the delete button.
“It has to be professionally cleansed and none of the teachers seem to know that.”
Mr Adams’s concern is similar to many others heard by the Mail during an investigation into the growth of fingerprinting in schools, which was sparked when a reader wrote in with an alarming tale.
She said 11-year- old children were being told to place their thumbs in a biometric mapping machine at a school in Carmarthenshire, Wales.
When parents objected and began to ask questions of the teachers, they were told that children could not use the library if they did not use the mapping system and the permission of parents was not needed anyway.
Furthermore, the teachers insisted that the fingerprint data would be absolutely safe in the school system.
But just how secure is the data from abuse? The schools claim that encrypting technology makes it completely inaccessible to outsiders.
When a child places his thumb or finger on the electronic mapping pad which scans his print, it is transformed into what is called an unintelligible algorithm.
This is a string of numbers, stored on a biometric template, which is held as a code for the child’s actual fingerprint.
Crucially, the schools, the education authorities and the Government say it is very difficult to convert this code back to the original thumb or fingerprint.
But not impossible.
So if the right computer geek gets hold of the code for a child’s fingerprint, he should be able to create the original fingerprint from it.
So what are the dangers if a child’s finger or thumb print is recreated by a hacker?
The simple answer is identity theft. Biometric information such as fingerprints cannot be changed like a PIN number, which is why, in the future, they will be used to authenticate passports or bank accounts.
The print of a seven-year-old boy, for instance, could be pinched from a school computer and then sold to someone who wanted to have the fake identity of a British citizen.
The boy grows up and, at 19, tries to open a bank account.
But he is told he already has one and he is in the red so the answer is no.
At 22, he applies for a mortgage only to be refused because he already has a 20-year loan.
At the register office he asks for a marriage licence, but then finds he already has a wife.
The identity thief has been there first.
Even more perturbing, perhaps, is the potential for mix-ups between innocent people and criminals – for the police, the security services and governments all over the world use such coded algorithms to keep the fingerprints of criminals.
As one IT security consultant in Britain, Brian Drury, said recently: “If a child has never touched a fingerprint scanner, there is zero probability of being incorrectly investigated for a crime.
“Once a child has touched a scanner they will be at the mercy of the algorithm [stored in the school computer] for the rest of their lives.”
It is these issues that worry the parents. Jonathan Adams explains how his son started secondary school in Hadley, Suffolk, a year ago.
Within a week he had been fingerprinted.
“It turned out that the school had been using biometric fingerprinting for five years,” says Mr Adams.
“They have never considered asking the parents for permission.
“When I objected to what had happened to my son, they sent out a consent form saying it was all fine and dandy and if you want to be awkward you can say no.
“In theory my son’s fingerprints have now been removed from the system. But these are ordinary computers.
“They are networked with other schools, they are linked with the local authority, and in turn they are connected with the wider internet.
“I know about IT. Any geek in a backroom with cutting-edge software or hardware can get in to copy the biometric data of any child or all of them.”
One of the fiercest campaigners against child fingerprinting is David Clouter.
He has set up a website called Leave Them Kids Alone which is pressing schools to ask permission-from parents before they take the biometric details of pupils.
The businessman acted after his 11-year-old daughter announced one evening that her school, St Matthews in Cambridge, was planning to use fingerprint scans instead of library cards.
David and his wife Katarzyna didn’t believe it.
They found the letter confirming the new library system in their daughter Marysia’s bag – and discovered they had no say in the matter of whether or not the system was introduced.
“Schools send out consent slips for just about anything, from allowing popcorn during cinema trips to whether we can take pictures of the school play at the end of term,” Mr Clouter says, “but they didn’t plan to ask the parents about taking their children’s fingerprints.”
Up to now, the Government has refused to say if the fingerprinting of children is legal and this is what parents may now test in the courts.
Roberta Smart is a housewife and mother of two girls, Kelsey, aged nine, and Harley, six.
They go to a primary school in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, which has introduced a thumb scanner so children can use the library.
She and her partner, Alistair, have written to the school forbidding their daughters’ participation.
“I believe that this is part of a Government plan to soften up children for ID cards,’ says Roberta, who is reading for a university degree.
“It is grooming the pupils at a very young age to accept that taking their personal biometric details and storing them on computers is normal.
“The school says it is doing nothing wrong and there is nothing to hide. But we are moving closer and closer to a Big Brother State.
“What could a child’s fingerprints be used for in ten years’ time?”
Her views are shared by Dr Sandra Leaton Gray, director of studies in sociology of education at Homerton College, Cambridge University.
She believes the fingerprinting is dangerous.
“Children are being encouraged to become compliant and passive about giving out their biometric details,” she says.
“Essentially, they are being softened up for later life.
“People mix up everyday ID, such as drivers’ licences, with this kind of information. It is very different.
“Some of the companies supplying the finger mapping systems in our schools have connections with the American intelligence services and military operating at Guantanamo Bay and should not be allowed access to our pupils.”
Professor Ross Anderson, a Cambridge University professor and expert on privacy, agrees.
He told the Mail this week: “Britain is out of line with the rest of Europe, where the fingerprinting of schoolchildren does not happen.
“It is a slippery slope. Certainly, the pupils are being softened up and led to believe that giving their personal biometric data to the authorities is normal behaviour.”
Few are more sure of that than Fiona Elliott, the mother of Alexander and Jessica in Doncaster.
She is just relieved that her children have escaped being fingerprinted by a whisker.
“Our primary school’s motto is “Living, Learning and Laughing Together”,’ she said ruefully this week.