UK schools are using facial recognition to take pupils’ lunch money

A group of nine schools in the UK have started using facial recognition to verify children’s payments for school meals. The schools in North Ayrshire in Scotland claim that using the technology is faster and more hygienic than taking payments using cards or fingerprint scanners, but privacy advocates warn that the move is normalizing biometric surveillance.

“With Facial Recognition, pupils simply select their meal, look at the camera and go, making for a faster lunch service whilst removing any contact at the point of sale,” reads a flyer distributed to parents by the schools. An FAQ sheet says that children’s biometric data is stored in an encrypted form and deleted when a child leaves the school. Parents have to opt-in for children to use the technology, and can alternatively use PIN to verify payments.

David Swanston, managing director of CRB Cunninghams, the firm responsible for installing the technology, told The Financial Times that facial recognition cut payment time per pupil to five seconds on average. Swanston said pilots of the system had begun in 2020, and that 65 more schools were signed up to introduce the technology.

As reported by the FT, North Ayrshire council claims that 97 percent of children or parents consented to be enrolled. But some parents said they were not sure if children fully understood what they were signing up for, and were influenced by peer pressure.

Facial recognition systems of various types are becoming more common throughout the world. Schools in the United States have been installing such systems for years, though usually as a security measure. Last week, Moscow introduced facial recognition payments in its metro system, with activists warning that the technology could be used to track and identify protestors. Various states and cities in the US have banned facial recognition, arguing that the technology is frequently biased across racial or gender lines. In the European Union, too, politicians and advocacy groups are calling for a ban on the technology, arguing that the downsides of its introduction outweigh potential benefits.

Silkie Carlo of the UK campaign group Big Brother Watch told the FT that the Ayrshire school scheme was unnecessary. “It’s normalising biometric identity checks for something that is mundane,” said Carlo. “You don’t need to resort to airport style [technology] for children getting their lunch.”