Schools may fingerprint six million children

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The Independent Online

Almost six million children at 17,000 schools could have their fingerprints taken, intensifying fears of the growth of a "surveillance society" where personal information is gathered from cradle to grave.

As soaring numbers of schools require pupils to have biometric checks to register in the morning, buy canteen food or borrow a book, it emerged that less than one-quarter of local education authorities have banned collecting fingerprints.

The rest either allow it or have no policy on the issue, potentially enabling headteachers to gather biometric data from about 5.9 million English schoolchildren as young as four without telling their parents.

The loophole provoked a civil liberties row last night, with the Government facing demands to introduce a code of practice to prevent such information being collected without permission.

Plans are already under way to hold details of all children in a single register to be launched next year and Tony Blair has said he wants all youngsters monitored for signs of criminality.

The number of schools that could potentially fingerprint pupils was obtained by the Tories in freedom of information requests to all English and Welsh local education authorities.

Damian Green, Tory home affairs spokesman, said: "This is very disturbing. Most parents would be horrified to know their children might be fingerprinted without their knowledge and without knowing what happens to that information in the future. As a country we need to wake up to what's happening - we're getting more and more surveillance of our lives without a proper public debate about what's happening."

Thousands of schools have already bought software to record the biometric data of youngsters, including fingerprints and photographs. It is used for smart cards to speed up taking the attendance register and give children easier access to libraries and meals.

The growth in the technology - without safeguards on how the information is stored or deleted after a child has left their school - has aroused controversy.

Gloucestershire County Council has ordered an investigation after discovering that at least 17 of its primary schools were fingerprinting children as young as four. There have also been protests at primary schools in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, and Kendal, Cumbria, after it emerged that pupils were only allowed to borrow books if their fingerprints were on record.

Phil Booth, spokesman for the NO2ID group, said: "As fears grow about adults' biometrics being taken, now the next generation is being targeted before it even leaves primary school."

Pippa King, a Hull teacher who is campaigning for tighter controls on fingerprinting in schools, said: "Our children are going to grow up in a world where biometrics are very important. They need to know they have to be careful with their personal information and be in control of it. I don't think making children desensitised to that is a good thing."

Seventy-nine MPs of all parties have signed a Commons motion registering alarm at the growth in numbers of schools collecting biometric data.

It has also been condemned in the Lords, where the Liberal Democrat Baroness Walmsley said: "The practice of fingerprinting in schools has been banned in China as being too intrusive and an infringement of children's rights. Yet here it is widespread.''

But Lord Adonis, an Education minister, said the Government believed controls were adequate, arguing that biometric systems could increase take-up of free school meals.

The Tories are demanding a four-point code of practice. It would ban fingerprinting without permission from parents, code data to guarantee confidentiality, ensure information is only used for purposes specified in advance and require it to be destroyed after a child leaves.

Watching the nation

* CCTV

Britain is covered by a network of 4.2 million closed-circuit television cameras - more per head than any other country in Europe or North America. Londoners can be caught on camera 300 times a day.

* DNA

Four million samples, including one million from people never convicted of an offence, are on the DNA database, covering almost 7 per cent of the population. Tony Blair has said he sees no reason why every adult should not be included.

* MEDICAL RECORDS

A central National Health Service database will soon hold millions of confidential medical records, enabling staff to access patients' information at the press of a button. People who object will not be able to opt out.

* IDENTITY CARDS

From 2009, anyone who renews a British passport will be forced to register for an identity card.

Fifty-two pieces of information, including fingerprints and iris scans, will be held on the register that will underpin the scheme.

* DATA-SHARING

Ministers are examining proposals to build a so-called "super-database" containing personal data such as benefit and pension records, which could easily be transferred between Whitehall departments.

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