Starting this fall, some students will buy their lunch simply by looking at a web camera in the school cafeteria and saying their name, thanks to a food service company that is tapping face and voice recognition technology.

The most prevalent biometric authentication used in schools today is fingerprint scanning, but companies such as Food Service Solutions Inc. say they want to avoid the stigma attached to fingerprinting—especially in schools.

“You bring up the word ‘fingerprinting,’ and there’s a connotation,” said Mitch Johns, president of Food Service Solutions. In real life and on television, only “bad guys” are fingerprinted after being arrested by the police, Johns said.

“We feel like we’re a leader in bringing new technology to the market, and we feel the new system is a more acceptable device,” he said.

Some of Food Service’s school clients do use fingerprint technology in the cafeteria, but according to feedback from these schools, fingerprinting is still too slow, Johns said. Even though the students don’t have to fumble with change or swipe a card with their personal identification number (PIN), they still have to stop and touch the fingerprint reader.

With face and voice recognition, students merely position themselves in front of a web camera attached to computer monitor and say their name or any chosen word. Reportedly, the computer identifies the students instantly and deducts the meals from their accounts.

“For our system, it takes less then two seconds for the whole process,” said Jeffrey Buechler, director of sales for BioID America Inc., the company that has partnered with Food Service Solutions on the system.

BioID’s biometric authentication software recognizes a user’s face, voice, and lip movement simultaneously.

“It measures speed, direction, and flow as you are speaking,” Buechler said. “We take lots of points around your face and measure how they move.”

To enroll, the student looks at the camera and says his or her name three times for verification. “If I’m saying ‘Jeffrey,’ I say my name the same way every time,” Buechler said.

The software can be set up to add a new recording daily, weekly, or monthly to compensate for students’ growth spurts, Buechler said. Students can opt out if they want to; it’s completely voluntary.

Like other biometric authentication technologies, face- and voice-recognition technology lets students buy meals at school without cash, passwords, or meal tickets. It also prevents students who participate in the free or reduced-priced lunch program from being identified.

“It will definitely reduce the stigma attached to subsidized lunch programs. No one will know,” Buechler said.

Johns said voice recognition keeps pass cards from being forgotten, stolen, or lost. It also remedies the problem of students giving out their PINs.

“Our technology enables kids to get their meals without a password, without PINs, and without cards. There’s absolutely nothing for a child to pass to another child,” Buechler said.

It’s also an easier system for young students. “If you have a kindergarten student, you have to teach them and train them to remember and use the number,” Johns said.

If students fool around or try to beat the system, they just won’t get lunch.

“You have to want to get authenticated. I could put my hand over my face, but then I wouldn’t be identified,” Buechler said. “They only have 45 minutes for lunch. I don’t think they’ll fool around that much.”

Privacy concerns

BioID’s face and voice recognition system “is unlike other biometrics systems in that it protects users’ privacy,” Buechler said. An algorithm built into the software program prevents the data from being used for anything else.

“It’s taking a photograph and breaking it down into ones and zeroes using a special algorithm, so there’s no actual recording kept,” Buechler said.

But privacy advocates say face- and voice-recognition technologies raise even greater privacy concerns—and the less information you give to others, the better.

“Privacy advocates always follow the idea that one should minimize the amount of data about oneself held by other parties,” said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

According to Hoofnagle, there’s not much schools can do to keep this kind of data from the police. “Undoubtedly, law enforcement will enter and ask the school for the student data as soon as a crime occurs,” he said.

Earlier this year, at Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, police used face-recognition technology to match mug shots of wanted criminals with people in the crowd. In a nightlife section of Tampa, called Ybor City, police have set up surveillance so they can continually match people’s faces to their archive of wanted criminals.

Hoofnagle worries that by using this technology in school, children will become accustomed to it and will give out this kind of personal information without thinking twice. If they grow up using this technology, perhaps they won’t question why the grocery store and government offices use it as well.

“With the use of biometrics, you begin to breed children that are used to the system,” Hoofnagle said. “Especially when you start with young people, you can easily begin to [develop] a surveillance state.”

Johns doesn’t consider this to be an issue in a school setting, because students choose to use the system and are aware that the scanning is taking place.

“In my opinion, giving over [your social security number] can cause far more damage than being in a school lunch line,” Johns said. “This type of technology is already here, and its use is going to be more prevalent.”

Eventually, Johns said, Food Service Solutions will expand the use of voice- and face-recognition technology to the library and for taking attendance.

Before that happens, the company will see how students respond to the technology. “We will be looking for acceptance from the students, because they are going to have to use it,” Johns said.


BioID America Inc.

Food Service Solutions Inc.

Electronic Privacy Information Center