Interview: Walter Hamilton on Florida Student Biometrics Ban

IBIAnlPeter O’Neill, president of findBIOMETRICS interviews IBIA vice-chairman, Walter Hamilton

Yesterday, the governor of Florida signed off on Bill 188, prohibiting the collection of student biometric data in schools. The road to this broad sweeping decision has been a long one, and despite resistance from organizations like the International Biometric and Identity Association (IBIA), technophobia seems to have prevailed over the promise of safety, efficiency and security.

Bill 188 passed legislature a few weeks ago, waiting for the governor’s signature until yesterday when it passed into law. Immediately after it made its way to the governor’s desk, Walter Hamilton, vice-chairman of the IBIA (WH) got in touch with findBIOMETRICS president Peter O’Neill (fB) in order to discuss the bold anti-biometrics move in Florida.

fB: You and I have spoken many times about some of the challenges we face as an industry and I know you have been involved with one such challenge in Florida. For those of our readers not aware of the situation, can you please tell us about the status of the Florida Biometrics Bill?

WH: Sure Peter, a piece of legislation has passed both the House and the Senate in the state of Florida that prohibits the collection of biometric information from students or their parents. It is not confined to any specific application; it is a broad and very general prohibition of the technology. It is a very unfortunate circumstance. Now that the bill has passed the legislature, it is sitting on the governor’s desk waiting for his signature and he is expected to sign it.

fB: How in the world did they arrive at that? That is a very uninformed, dare I say ignorant response to a new technology that will be used for everything from healthcare to financial payments to travel. How did this get so far away from reality?

WH: This is an example of what I like to call “techno panic” where people overreact to privacy concerns related to technology.  Last year, the American Legislative Exchange Council published a white paper on biometrics and privacy which said that “there are real benefits to using biometrics.  [Legislators] must use great care to craft privacy policies that guard against the drawbacks without jeopardizing the benefits of new technologies”.   In the case of Florida, the extreme legislative action we are now faced with was prompted by an unfortunate incident in Polk County last year where a school set up a pilot test of iris recognition to ensure that school children got on the right bus.  The problem was that there was no parental notice or informed consent and the superintendent of the school district had not been consulted in advance.  So it was understandable that there was fear and negative reaction.  Rather than ban the technology completely, IBIA urged the Florida legislators to adopt reasonable privacy protective measures such as public and parental notice, written parental consent, limited disclosure, data protection, limited access to biometric data, eventual data destruction and notification to parents in the event of a data breach.  These are all reasonable policies that IBIA supports. Unfortunately, the legislators didn’t listen to logic and instead responded to political pressure from groups that were lumping biometrics into a broader issue related to parental rights and government intrusion on student privacy.

fB: The IBIA just released a very interesting analysis of biometrics for school children (which is available on our site). Can you please review this information for us?

WH: What the IBIA has published is a simple statement that talks about the benefits of biometrics in schools such as securing school facilities against unauthorized access, replacing vulnerable passwords to secure sensitive information that is stored in school information systems, such as school grades and other personal information. Also biometrics is widely used to identify students when they pay for their lunches and to expedite the kids through the lunch lines.  This is a very important application for biometrics in schools because it saves money and time and the kids don’t have to have a password or a card that could be lost or stolen. So when the student gets to the end of the lunch line they would simply present their biometric to the sensor and it would quickly identify them, debit their account and they are on their way. Many schools today have a very short amount of time to feed the students, as little as 30 minutes for thousands of students in some larger schools, so this is a very important tool to expedite that process. It also helps with the record keeping which is required for federally subsidized lunch programs that schools all participate in to make sure that the kids that are receiving those benefits are authorized to receive them.  Biometrics can also be used to match parents or guardians with school students, particularly the very young ones, when they are picked up to prevent kidnapping.  Biometrics can also be used to make sure that kids are boarding the right school bus or getting off at the right stop. So there are a lot of applications where biometrics can improve the security and efficiency of school operations.

fB: Walter, in this piece you also speak about the fact that biometrics are not a privacy threat but rather a privacy enhancer. Could you elaborate more on that for us?

WH: Yes I can. I see biometrics as a “gate keeper” that protects against unauthorized access.  Further, there is less potential for harm from the collection of a person’s biometric data than there is from the collection of other sensitive information such as your political affiliation, your voting history, your religious affiliation, credit card numbers, social security information, or medical information. A hacker would have very little incentive to try and steal biometric information because of the way the records are typically formatted and stored as templates and not as the original biometric image.  Biometric templates don’t reveal any identifiable information about a person such as their name, sex, age, or race, or health condition so they would be of little value to a hacker. Whereas a hacker would see value in stealing a database that had credit cards or social security numbers so they can perform identity theft. Even so, the IBIA believes that the biometric data should be subject to the same standards of care that we require of other personal information.  But having said that, the data is really meaningless since it is only an opaque series of 1’s and 0’s.

fB: What about biometric templates taken at a school, could they be used for other purposes like law enforcement?

WH: No.  A template generated from the original biometric sample, like the image of a fingerprint pattern or a facial image could not be effectively shared with law enforcement organizations.  Law enforcement organizations are only set up to receive biometric data in its original image form and then they convert it into a template format using their own proprietary algorithms which are generally quite different from commercial biometric systems.  So they wouldn’t be able to make any sense out of templates stored in a school biometric system.

fB: The IBIA has grown a lot this past year. Is the commercialization and mobility of biometrics, i.e. Apple, Samsung a driver for this increased participation from the key industry players?

WH: Yes.  I think that the introduction of biometric sensors onto smart mobile devices by Apple and Samsung is a significant event in the growth of the biometric industry. I think this brings biometric technology to the level of ubiquity where many millions of consumers will experience the technology and see the value in using biometrics for their own personal convenience and to protect the data that they have stored on their own mobile devices.  This is a very important event in our industry and I think that it is going to significantly contribute to industry growth and also help demystify the technology.  My hope is that some people’s perceptions of the technology will change from being somehow privacy intrusive, harmful or dangerous to realizing and appreciating that biometrics are actually protecting the data that they really value, such as their personally identifiable information and financial data.

fB: Walter, I look forward to hearing more on this unbelievable situation in Florida and as always, it was great to hear the IBIA perspective on these important issues facing our industry.

WH: My pleasure Peter.

For those readers who are interested in becoming more involved with the IBIA, visit its official website.