Going Biometric

When a big yellow school bus picks up students in front of their homes, and they board the bus bound for school, parents and schools don’t always know where a student is at any given time on their transit to school, and on the return trip home. Usually, parents and the school system trust that all will be well and that the bus driver has the children for safekeeping for the entire round trip.

For better accountability, some school systems are avidly embracing biometrics as means of identification and authentication to address this concern and to use for many other applications within a school environment.

For the example of accountability of pupils on a school bus, iris scanning technology is one solution being proposed by BlinkSpot. Iris scanning technology provides a means of accountability for everyone onboard. Students board a bus, are positively identified and their whereabouts are positively tracked.

 “Every school year there are too many reports of students getting on the wrong bus, getting off at the wrong locations or, worse yet, not getting on or off the bus at all,” says Michael Hagan, vice president of BlinkSpot. “We recognized that our technology could have a positive impact and deliver a fast, simple and safe solution for parents, administrators and school bus operators.”

When children board or exit the bus, the iris scanning technology recognizes the child and sends real time reports to the school along with an individual email to each parent verifying the time and location of their child.

“We see biometrics being used primarily in time and attendance systems,” says Jonathan Antar, a project manager with A+ Technology and Security in Bay Shore, N.Y. “These types of systems would not be used as often on the student level due primarily to privacy concerns. Identification through fingerprinting makes community members/parents nervous. Parents and others from communities are concerned about how information will be used in the future and boards of education are less likely to authorize these methods because of this concern.

“In addition,” Antar says, “the cost to implement is expensive. The cost will be several thousand dollars per access point. Equipment, particularly the optical scanners elements of hardware for reading fingerprints or handprints, will require regular maintenance and periodic repair. This will create an ongoing cost that could also prove to be expensive,” he adds.

“Some systems on the market now work well, but even in this case, they will have to be maintained. The greater the volume of users the more often this will have to be done. We don’t believe the technology and its efficiency level has reached a point where biometrics would be the preferred option, particularly for security in terms of student access and entry points to schools or other facilities,” says Antar.

Jeff Carter is the chief strategy officer for Eyelock Inc., based in New York City. The company develops biometric authentication technologies for various applications in many industries. For K-12 schools, Carter says that biometric technology has many different applications, such as proving identity in physical interactions like entering a school, taking a standardized test like the SAT/ACT, boarding a school bus, entering a secure research laboratory, receiving a lunch and validating time and attendance. In addition, it is used in digital interactions like logging on to secure school networks or computer systems, accessing grading systems and taking exams.

According to Carter, iris scanning technology has been rapidly evolving and its utility is being recognized. “Iris scanning technology has evolved with the speed of technological change,” says Carter. “Like computers, iris scanners have continued to increase in power, capability and accuracy at the same time their size miniaturizes to something that can fit in a laptop, tablet or smart phone — while simultaneously dropping in price.”

Biometric authentication has many other applications as well. For example, Pinellas (Fla.) County School District is deploying a palm vein authentication solution for verification in their food service operations and validating a student’s eligibility to participate for various meal programs. The palm vein technology has been integrated into the existing software’s system to provide a more reliable, hygienic, accurate and secure authentication solution that is also easier to use and maintain.

The palm vein sensor uses a near-infrared light to capture a student’s palm vein pattern, generating a unique biometric template that is matched against the palm vein patterns of pre-registered users. Unlike other readers, this device does not come into contact with the skin, making it extremely hygienic, non-intrusive and unrestricted by external factors such as skin types and conditions.

“We examined several biometric systems during our review process and it was evident during our pilot phase that the Fujitsu PalmSecure solution, paired with MCS’s Point of Sale application, best met our qualifying criteria,” says Art Dunham, director of Food Service Department for Pinellas County Schools. “The primary drivers for us are the students, security and adhering to our budgets. Palm vein technology and point-of-sale software addressed our priorities and we are very excited to implement this solution across the district.”

“Compared to traditional forms of establishing our identity, biometrics provide a faster, more accurate and more convenient alternative to establishing a person’s identity,” says Bud Yanak, director of Product Management and Partner Development for Biometric Solutions for Fujitsu Frontech North America. “It is interesting to note that although U.S. firms and technologists have done the most to advance biometrics, we are one of the slowest adopters of the technology. European and Asian based organizations have, and continue, to deploy biometrics at a more rapid pace,” he adds. “Part of the lag here in the U.S. is based on our culture and the fear of ‘big brother’ that fingerprint and facial biometric systems evoke,” he explains. Speaking for this form of palm vein biometrics, this fear is unfounded, since it is a non-contact technology that does not leave a ‘biometric’ trace. We also go to great lengths to protect the biometric template,” he says.

Yanak also emphasizes that biometrics protects against identity theft better than traditional forms of establishing an identity. He explains that it is a well-known fact that a person’s PIN and password can be easily lost or compromised by a hacker who then poses as that person to perpetrate fraud, such as bank transaction or accessing medical records or services. But with biometrics, this fraud can be virtually eliminated, therefore protecting us from identity theft.

“We have over 50 K-12 school districts across the U.S. using our palm vein technology today — in lunch lines to speed up transactions and eliminate long lines, prevent identity theft and eliminate hard to memorize PIN numbers,” adds Yanak. “Other applications include school bus attendance, classroom attendance, physical access control to school buildings/labs and even attendance tracking of after-school programs in order to receive subsidized funding from the government for low-income families.”

Yanak says that the costs of biometric technology are modest and they are able to demonstrate an ROI with many advantages and benefits.

Antar says that education and communication about the technology is the most significant challenge. “A program for education about this technology would have to be part of the adoption process, this could take time and funding,” he says. “For a system that includes biometrics to work, the product’s durability, cost, efficiency and ROI must be expressed to these audiences,” he adds.

Understanding of how these systems work today, and how they will work in the future, may require the topic to be revisited when budgets can manage the expense and biometric technology has advanced to the next level, which will bring costs down.

“Costs generally range from $2,500 for ultra-high throughput installations for the federal government, to less than $1 on smart phones or tablets,” says Carter. “The return on investment varies significantly depending on the industry. However, with form factors getting smaller, costs going down and a vast number ofapplications, the technology quickly pays for itself.” 

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He focuses on business and technology topics.