School administrators have tabled plans to use a hand-scanning device to increase security at a high school in Merrimack, N.H., after parents voiced privacy concerns.

The device already has been installed at Merrimack High School’s entrance, but Superintendent Marge Chiafery put the plan on hold this week after school board members said they had received several complaints from parents.

According to a letter sent home to students last week, all students and staff members were to have the size and shape of their hands scanned into an electronic file. After classes had started each day, doors from the school’s foyer into the building would lock. Anyone wanting to get in after that would place his or her hand in the device, and if the scan matched one in the system, the door would unlock.

A receptionist in the main office would unlock the doors for visitors, the letter said.

Principal Dorothy Gould told school board members about the system in July, but gave few details. The board will discuss it further at its Aug. 27 meeting.

The device, called HandKey, is manufactured by Recognition Systems, a biometrics company of Campbell, Calif.

The hand-scanning device doesn’t scan fingerprints as most palm-scanning devices do, Gould told eSchool News. “It takes 96 photographs of a hand to give a three-dimensional picture of a hand. The shape of each person’s hand is unique.”

You place your hand on the device’s tray and type your student number into its number pad. “It checks to make sure that’s the same three-dimensional shape as when you enrolled and then it unlocks the door,” Gould said.

“Rather than have anyone just walk into the building at any time, we lock the doors to make sure the building is as safe as possible at all times,” Gould said. “This is just a way to let kids or faculty members back into the building.”

The school has had problems with strangers entering the building and approaching students. “We ask people to come to the main office and get a visitors pass. But if they don’t want to, then they’re not going to,” Gould said.

She added, that most predators don’t go to the front office to announce their presence. “That’s all this addresses. It’s one way to make the school safer,” Gould said.

School Board Chairman Ken Coleman said he has heard from several parents concerned about privacy issues.

“I share some of those concerns,” Coleman said. “What was missing here was a more elaborate presentation by the administration to the board.”

Gould agrees that more information is needed. “I’m not sure if they understood what the HandKey does. Maybe they thought it was a fingerprinting machine, but it’s not,” she said. “This is just so the people who need to come in the school and belong in the school, can come into the school. It’s not for tracking them.”

The parents are right to have privacy concerns, according to Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“There’s a danger in revealing personally identifiable information to others, especially when it’s information you can’t change and it uniquely identifies you,” Hoofnagle said. “If biometric data [are] later used for improper purposes, there’s little a student can do.”

Also, law enforcement could obtain and retain the data for whatever use it sees fit. “There are many instances where these entities hold private data and then police or investigators come along and ask for the data, and they usually get it,” he said.

“If the board is to go ahead and use the biometric technology, [school officials] should develop and enforce a policy of how the personal information is going to be used,” Hoofnagle said.

Setting a policy would stop the board from committing “function creep” a term Hoofnagle said happens when entities get comfortable with a technology, and decide to expand its uses. In this case, hand scanning might be expanded from the school entrance, to the cafeteria, to the library.

But setting a school policy about how the data are used wouldn’t protect student data from falling into the hands of law enforcement, Hoofnagle said.

“A school board policy wouldn’t defeat a subpoena from an investigator,” Hoofnagle argued. To protect privacy, he said, state or federal laws should prevent personal information from being transferred or used for anything but the original purpose.

Merrimack High School students have been carrying photo identification cards for the past year.

At least one student said the administration should have given the ID system more of a chance before going straight to a palm-scanning device.

“Initially, I thought [a palm scanner] was a little extreme for Merrimack High School,” said Michelle Simard, 17. “We haven’t had too many incidents like other schools have.”

Simard, who will be a senior when school starts Aug. 29, said students aren’t used to such high-security measures.

“It kind of reminds me of a jail,” she said.

Gould said they choose the hand key scanner over an ID scanner because it was a couple thousand dollars cheaper and it didn’t require anything that a student could forget, lose, or pass to a friend.

She added, “It gives dignity to the people who are supposed to be in the building. They don’t have to ask.”

Links:

Merrimack High School
http://www.merrimack.k12.nh.us/mhs/mhshome.htm

Merrimack School District
http://www.merrimack.k12.nh.us

HandKey
http://www.handreader.com

Electronic Privacy Information Center
http://www.epic.org