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.

With face and voice recognition, students merely position themselves in front of a web camera attached to a 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 measures a user’s face, voice, and lip movement simultaneously.

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.

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.

But privacy advocates say face- and voice-recognition technology raises even greater privacy concerns than fingerprinting–and the less information you give to others, the better.

According to Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), 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.

“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 see 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.”


BioID America Inc.

Food Service Solutions Inc.

Electronic Privacy Information Center