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Fingerprinting comes to Aspen school cafeterias

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN, Colorado ” Cafeterias at Aspen, Colorado elementary and middle schools are poised to have fingerprint-scanning programs in place after spring break. The programs will be used to identify children in the lunch line and deduct the cost of their meal from an online account.

The district plans to send out forms allowing parents to opt their children in or out of the biometric program. The technology, which Aspen Superintendent Diana Sirko announced in November, immediately sparked controversy as parents voiced concerns about identify theft.

The district already has spent about $2,000 on equipment and training for the program, Sirko said. But if too many parents opt out, the district will consider another system, likely a card-based one.

“Let’s say 60 percent of kids opt out; we may determine it’s not going to be very efficient,” she said.

Other school districts consulted by Aspen staff have found that about 20 percent of their students opt out, Sirko said.

Last week, the district held three meetings to allow parents to inquire about the program. At each meeting, Chris Durham, the district’s technology coordinator, explained how the program captures data points from the fingerprints, converts them into an algorithm, then stores the data in a secure system. It’s as if someone chose to store the last four digits of a Social Security number inside a safe within a locked house, Durham said.

Still, he wasn’t willing to completely guarantee the safety of the information.

“I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s not possible [to get a child’s fingerprint from the system],” he said.

About 20 parents attended the meetings. Reactions to the program were mixed.

Parent Jamie Cidzak brought up the oft-cited point that a fingerprint, unlike a credit card number, can never be changed after an incident of identify theft.

Lisa Gonzales-Gile, also a parent, made a similar argument, noting that people need to use their fingerprints for official reasons, such as a passport.

“I don’t know if I’m willing to compromise [my child’s] fingerprints at his age for a $4.25 lunch,” she said.

Parent Janet Hoover, who once worked in the lunch program, said she thought the old punch-card system worked well, particularly because it isn’t hard for the staff to learn every child’s name.

But Sirko said some parents had asked for a system that doesn’t involve cards that can be lost or ruined in the wash.

Both Gonzales-Gile and Hoover pointed out that plans to fingerprint passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport were suspended last year because of security concerns.

But several parents also noted that students’ fingerprints will be entered into a database in a few years anyway, in order to obtain a driver’s license. And some said they had already registered their child’s fingerprints in order to get a passport or identification card.

And while some parents weren’t convinced by the meetings, several parents said the explanations left them more comfortable with the new technology.

“I’ve got to admit, when I first heard this, I was skeptical,” said parent Blanca O’Leary. But the explanation helped allay some of her concerns about theft, she said.

She also pointed out that the information about students contained in the lunch database was not especially sensitive.

“If [thieves] were able to hack [the system] and figure out the algorithm, they’re going to find out what Cavanaugh ate for lunch on Tuesday morning,” she said of her child.

In the end, most attendees liked the idea of leaving the decision to participate up to parents.

“So long as I have the option to opt out,” Cidzak said.

kredding@aspentimes.com


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