Sep 23 2008

Fast, Accurate and Convenient

New biometric systems can save time and money while taking the guesswork out of identification.

New biometric systems can save time and money while taking the guesswork out of identification.

At the beginning of each school year, English teachers at Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston, S.C., escort their freshmen to the school’s media center to do something that until recently was the stuff of science fiction.

Students place their left and right index fingers on a scanner. The system’s software creates a template of their fingerprints and stores it in a database, which contains templates of every student in the school. The high school has used this technology, referred to as biometric finger scanning, for four years to identify students.

“If the finger isn’t positioned correctly on the scanner, the software will guide you, telling you to move it up, down, left or right,” says Bonnie Drewry, the school’s media specialist, who operates the system. “It only takes seconds to scan each person’s finger.”

All across the nation, school districts are exploring biometric technology. Once considered expensive and unnecessary, biometric technology is quickly becoming commonplace and, in some cases, more efficient than using typical student identification cards. School administrators no longer have to worry about lost, stolen or exchanged IDs. The new method speeds up lunch lines, expedites self-checkout in the media center and limits access to restricted areas in a building or on a network. Many schools have embraced the technology, claiming it’s accurate, fast and convenient, and vowing never to return to traditional IDs.

Easy to Install and Maintain

Biometric systems all operate the same way: Using a scanner, the systems capture a high-resolution image of a specific part of the human body that’s unlikely to change; that image is then compared with other images stored in a central database, explains Bill O’Neal, director of technology and information management at the K–12 Edgefield County (S.C.) School District, which includes Strom Thurmond High School.

The installation — which includes two scan points, staff training and uploading the student database onto the system — was approximately $1,500. Annual maintenance is less than $1,000, O’Neal says, which includes $90 per scan point for software upgrade insurance and $130 for database maintenance per scan point each year. So far, the system has been accurate and requires minimal time from the information services department, he says.

“We have not had any issues with misidentification or dropped IDs,” says O’Neal. “The only maintenance I have to do is extract data to a text file twice a year after we do mid-year and end-year rollovers with students. The company’s tech [support] comes by, puts [the data] on a thumb drive and uploads the information into our database. It’s 20 minutes worth of work on our part and very little overhead.”

Two middle schools in Edgefield County also use the system. Because 76 percent of the district’s 4,000 students receive either a free or reduced lunch, the technology enhances the district’s accountability and streamlines state reporting requirements, he says.

Ideally, O’Neal hopes to use the technology to control school access while exploring ways to link it to the area’s sex offender database.

Learning Curve

Biometrics is a proven tool for identification, but the technology may also produce some indirect benefits.

Julie Schlak, a technology specialist at Eagan High School, part of Independent School District 196, in Eagan, Minn., says biometrics may prompt some students to pursue careers in engineering, science or technology.

“Our district has such a strong focus now on science, engineering, math and technology in our curriculum,” she says, explaining that her K–12 district supports the School for Environmental Studies, an alternative high school that prepares students for environmental careers. “Fingerprint recognition might stir up some interest in the technology field.”

Schlak’s school piloted a program that used fingerprint technology for self-checkout in the media center. The technology was glitch-free, she says. When the library installed new circulation software that was incompatible with the biometrics system, the school returned to using student IDs.

Still, Schlak says she is open to using biometrics again or exploring other authentication solutions. Her school’s biggest challenge was persuading parents to accept the new technology.

“We had to communicate with parents about what the pilot program was and that, no, we weren’t storing their child’s fingerprints, only an algorithm or template of their fingerprints,” she says. “That was very important to explain.”

Even though biometrics in schools is relatively new, there are some lessons schools can heed to ensure success. Be sure to talk with other users about problems they encountered and how they overcame them, says Hal Shimmin, director of information services at Ontario-Montclair School District in Ontario, Calif. Four years ago, his district’s attempt to use fingerprint technology for school buses ran into difficulty when the readers didn’t work on some of the buses.

Shimmin says school officials should ask other users the following questions about any biometrics system they are considering buying:

  • How long did it take before the system was operating smoothly?
  • How much staff support did it require after it was implemented?
  • What are the maintenance costs?

Although no technology is perfect from a performance perspective, biometrics can be highly beneficial for schools, adds Victor Lee, a senior consultant at the International Biometric Group in New York City.

“It all comes down to how it’s being used,” Lee says, explaining that a system’s environment, especially if it’s used outdoors, and the type of users, such as young children with dirty hands, can influence performance. “These factors can have a significant impact on how well the technology performs.”

Who Are You?

Most people are familiar with facial, fingerprint and voice recognition systems. But according to Victor Lee, a senior consultant at International Biometric Group, a New York-based consulting and integration company that also conducts biometric research, many other parts of the human body can be used for biometric identification:

  • Earlobe recognition examines the geometry of a person’s earlobes.
  • Hand recognition identifies people based on the structure of their hand.
  • Gait recognition differentiates people by the way they walk; for instance, measuring the length of their steps.
  • Vascular or vein pattern recognition scans an image of the user’s veins, which darken after hemoglobin in their blood absorbs light from the scanning device; Lee says this technology is most broadly used in Japan.