Lib Dems stand up against use of facial recognition tech in school dinner halls

This week the Information Commissioner stepped in after 9 schools in North Ayrshire started using facial recognition technology to speed up the payment queue in the dinner hall.

From The Guardian:

The ICO, an independent body set up to uphold information rights in the UK, said it would be contacting North Ayrshire council about the move and urged a “less intrusive” approach where possible.

An ICO spokesperson said organisations using facial recognition technology must comply with data protection law before, during and after its use, adding: “Data protection law provides additional protections for children, and organisations need to carefully consider the necessity and proportionality of collecting biometric data before they do so.

Scottish Lib Dem schools spokesperson Carole Ford went on GB News to say that this was wrong both in practical and privacy terms. Carole would know. As a former headteacher she knows what the issues are in school dinner halls. This is what she had to say:

She came across really well – very warm, engaging, practical and reasonable. I totally agree with her about the hold-ups being around serving food. I only realised years later that my son often didn’t get any food at lumchtime at all. Apparently if you were on the last lunch of the three sessions, there wasn’t much left, and even if you were on first lunch, you had to be there really soon after the bell went to have any chance of getting served within the very short time frame.

When I was in secondary school, we used to have an hour and a quarter for lunch. This enabled me to go home and have a bowl of my mum’s home made soup (one week it was lentil, the second Scotch Broth) and a sandwich. Really, good nutritious and delicious food. I also had to walk 20 minutes home and 20 minutes back, so I got exercise as well.  Why have we taken to having such a short break in the middle of the day?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Jane Ann Liston 20th Oct '21 - 9:21pm

    I get the impression that very few pupils go home for dinner nowadays. However I completely agree with Carole that we need to encourage pupils to take school dinners rather than fast food rubbish. That’s one good reason for shortening the lunch break, as the little dears don’t have so much time to seek out chips and burgers.

    Ideally, meals would be free and all pupils would have to stay on the school premises over lunch, rather than stravaiging around the towns stuffing themselves with fat and sugar-laden items of very little nutritional value, and in the process rendering themselves unteachable for the first period in the afternoon, as well as storing up trouble for later life.

  • *sigh* What on Earth is the problem with using technology to make people’s lives better? This reminds me of 15-ish years ago when the LibDems were against the new laws restricting smoking in indoor public areas (now universally accepted as a good thing), or around the same time when the LibDems were objecting to surveillance cameras in public spaces (now also universally accepted as a good way to make people safer), or very recently when the Scottish LibDems bafflingly came out against the sensible public health measure of vaccine passports.

    In all those examples, the LibDems were basically mis-using arguments about liberty to oppose things that either don’t meaningfully impact people’s freedom at all or where there was an obvious and very strong public good argument in favour of the change. It’s great that the LibDems strongly support people’s freedom to go about their lives as they wish, but I wish they’d be a bit more discerning about things that actually do restrict people’s freedom as opposed to things that are simply using technology and data to help people.

  • John Marriott 21st Oct '21 - 8:03am

    If the Scottish schools’ curriculum is anything like England’s it will be so chokka that I’m surprised they have any time for lunch at all! Talk about force feeding! No wonder the youngsters are so stressed.

    On the subject of facial recognition, it’s like ID cards. If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what’s all the fuss about?

  • I’m beginning to wonder – given it’s now fifty nine years since I paid my first sub to the Liberal Party – whether I’ve missed or overlooked something. I thought Liberals stood for ‘common sense’.

    Could somebody please spell out for me in fairly simple terms just how and why this is a dangerous, sinister and unacceptable use of modern technology, and how opposition to it demonstrates the new Scottish Lib Dem Leader’s offering of new hope ?

    My simple brain perceives it to be merely a quicker more efficient way for the wains and bairns to get their baked beans and roast potatoes…… but….. as a Headteacher for over twenty years, it’s always possible I may be wrong.

    Sadly, I’m afraid this is not the issue to sweep the Scottish Lib Dems back into serious politics again.

  • Simon R
    We introduced the Scottish smoking ban in 2006, ahead of England and cannot recall any significant objections from us; as for security cameras in public areas I believe we felt that regulation of them was warranted, ie who is watching what.
    Facial recognition is an area we need to understand more before charging into that swamp.

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Oct '21 - 10:43am

    @John Marriott
    “On the subject of facial recognition, it’s like ID cards. ”
    Not necessarily. Facial recognition systems still have flaws i.e. they get it wrong.

    “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what’s all the fuss about?”
    That’s the sort of argument Tony Blair used if I recall correctly. You value his standards of judgement?

    For me the problems with id cards concern what other data is linked to the id record and who has access to the data.

  • Carole explains things very well. There is no actual benefit to using facial recognition in schools like this, so even if there were no concerns, it’s an expensive gimmick, which will probably break and cause hold-ups. Why not spend the money on improving the meals themselves?

    We know that the algorithms behind a lot of facial recognition software are designed around white people. Has this been considered?

    Even if we were totally confident that everything would work smoothly, how secure is the data? Is there proper investment in the back-end and not just the bit that’s on display for photo-shoots? The data harvested to allow biometric recognition to work effectively on school aged children would be adequate to track them for the rest of their lives. If that data is lost or stolen then it’s out there forever. It’s not as simple as changing a password or getting a new set of credit cards.

    As for vaccine passports. The system introduced by the Scottish Government requires handing over more data than ones used elsewhere, and doesn’t allow for negative tests to be considered. Problems with getting the app to work means that resourceful teenagers have found ‘work-arounds’. This includes sharing screen-shots with under-18s, as proof of double vaccination is taken to mean proof of being over 18.

    If we have single-vaccinated kids sharing screen-shots as a modern version of fake ID, then it’s not exactly hard for the non-vaccinated adults to do the same. All at a cost of £600,000 when they could have had a better functioning app for much less.

    Why should we trust the people who can’t organise the proverbial shin-dig in a brewery with our important information?

  • John Marriott 21st Oct '21 - 1:20pm

    Just because Tony Blair was in favour of ID cards doesn’t put me off having one. I’ve read nothing yet that puts me off the idea.

    @David Gray
    Not THE David Gray, surely? As for busking, don’t you need a permit or something? If so, isn’t that a form of ID?

  • Phil Beesley 21st Oct '21 - 3:50pm

    Using facial recognition to identify pupils queuing for dinner sounds like an idea from a company flogging ID systems.

    As anyone who has queued for a canteen meal will recall, dislocations and delays in the system mostly occur when people are being served their food or when a dish has run out.

    This is a classic example of technology being used to “fix” a non-existent or trivial problem. Are there genuine reasons to worry about privacy intrusion? I’d say yes on the basis that it could be used for ill purposes.

  • Phil Beesley’s comments remind us that selling solutions to “non-existent or trivial problems” goes back a long way as the advertising in Victorian magazines for pills and potions bears witness. Wonder what the advertising is like for this stuff?

  • Brad Barrows 21st Oct '21 - 6:03pm

    If facial recognition technology is good enough to be used in schools, the obvious use would be to register pupils as they enter and leave the building. Good for child protection to know exactly when pupils may leave the building during the school day, and alert parents promptly, and also good to be able to easily identify those who should not be entering the building at any time.

  • Geoff Reid 21st Oct ’21 – 5:26pm:
    …selling solutions to “non-existent or trivial problems” goes back a long way as the advertising in Victorian magazines for pills and potions bears witness. Wonder what the advertising is like for this stuff?


    ‘Facial Recognition’:

    Facial recognition technology is a contactless biometric method that enhances the speed of service and retains the security of fingerprints whilst eliminating the requirement to physically touch a scanner making school meals purchases completely contactless.

    I was amused by this typo on their Homepage…

    We want to make sue that our customers are making the most out of their CRB Cunninghams software.

    One wonders if the old adage applies: “Bugs in software are like cockroaches in a kitchen; there’s always more than one and they’re never in the same drawer.”

  • Phil Beesley 21st Oct '21 - 6:42pm

    Brad Barrows: “If facial recognition technology is good enough to be used in schools, the obvious use would be to register pupils as they enter and leave the building.”

    Why? The purpose of doors is to provide entry and exit, rather than to determine the emotions and behaviour of pupils. Teachers can work out who is wagging lessons without lo-tech.

    “Good for child protection to know exactly when pupils may leave the building during the school day, and alert parents promptly”

    Pupils may have legitimate reasons to leave the building during the school day, reasons which they or the school might not wish to share with parents.

    “and also good to be able to easily identify those who should not be entering the building at any time.”

    Who should not enter a school? Thousands of people have a legitimate reason to enter every school as parents, workers, charity volunteers, neighbours.

  • There is the obvious solution… Free school dinners for all.

  • Simon Robinson 21st Oct '21 - 8:50pm

    @Andy Hyde “We introduced the Scottish smoking ban in 2006, ahead of England and cannot recall any significant objections from us” Ah OK, fair enough, my mistake. I was thinking more of England, where I’m fairly sure I recall a lot of the objections to proposed smoking ban were coming from the LibDems, on supposed grounds of liberty.

    More generally, I think the issue of facial recognition is an example of a new-ish technology that could be used for either good or bad purposes. In general, the best thing to do in that situation is to ensure there are safeguards/rules to ensure the technology is used only for good things, but as so often happens, too many people fall into the trap of just opposing the technology instead – very easy to do if you get into a populist-scaremongering mindset. I think that’s to some extent the mistake the Scottish LibDem leadership have made here.

  • Phil Beesley 21st Oct '21 - 9:57pm

    Simon Robinson: “very easy to do if you get into a populist-scaremongering mindset.”

    Please think again, Simon. The ICO stepped in because schools are unlikely to have the skills and resources to determine whether/how surveillance technology is used. In this case, liberals and a government body are proposing that schools are doing the wrong thing.

    There might be appropriate uses for facial recognition technology, as part of high security access systems (three factor tests: who you are, what you know and something you have), but ridiculous for children buying beans on toast.

  • @Phil Beesley – as I understand it, the ICO are stepping in to investigate whether data security laws are being complied with – and that seems to me a reasonable thing to do. That’s not at all the same thing as just condemning the use of the technology outright without even considering whether it might be useful in this situation – and is a very far cry from what Carole Ford appears to be saying.

    If – as is being claimed and seems plausible – the technology saves a bit of time (and perhaps manpower) in arranging/taking payments for meals, reduces Covid risk by avoiding touching cards, surfaces etc., and saves the pupils from having to carry ID/etc., then those do seem like worthwhile things – so I certainly wouldn’t say it’s ridiculous. (Obviously I’m not in a position to judge whether those conveniences are worth whatever the cost of the system is).

    A couple of years ago, I was a member of a gym that used facial recognition technology to allow members entry. Would you say that was inherently ridiculous?

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Oct '21 - 9:17am

    @Simon R
    “A couple of years ago, I was a member of a gym that used facial recognition technology to allow members entry. Would you say that was inherently ridiculous?”

    Being a member of a gym is a choice. If you choose to join one which uses facial recognition technology that is your choice. It is not essential for you to belong to a gym in the first place.

    Whereas it is expected that all children will be educated and preferably in schools rather than being home-educated. Issues of privacy intrusion are of fundamental importance in such situations. And I would suggest that for many people there may in practice be very little choice about where their children are educated.

  • Antony Watts 22nd Oct '21 - 12:07pm

    What am I so anti-Lib Dem today?

    Facial recognition can be and is a useful tool and is or can contribute to a better society.

    With the proviso that laws like GDPR are enforced and respected. That is you recogise a face for a specific purpose and not for anything else.

  • @nonconformistradical “Issues of privacy intrusion” Yes I agree with you that issues of privacy intrusion are of fundamental importance. But what we’re talking about is (roughly): person looks at a screen, and the system then logs that that person owes the school £X for a meal, so that the school then knows how much money to collect. How on Earth is that an intrusion of privacy? To me, an intrusion of privacy would be something like, someone comes up to my bedroom window and peers in while I’m in bed, or a friend hacks into my computer and reads my personal diary.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Oct '21 - 2:52pm

    @Simon R
    The other problem is the accuracy or otherwise of facial recognition technology – especially where black or Asian people are concerned.

  • Brad Barrows 22nd Oct '21 - 7:39pm

    @Phil Beesley
    I’m afraid your comment suggests a lack of understanding of the legal responsibilities of schools with regard to pupil safety and, in particular, their responsibilities to those pupils ‘in care’ whether that be in residential accommodation, with foster parents, in kinship care, or living with their own parents under supervision. Basically, children under 16 choosing to leave a school building, without permission, during the school day, is a potential child protection issue and parents/careers should be alerted. If technology can assist, it should be welcomed

  • @Nonconformistradical: Sure, and you need to make sure the system being used is accurate. That’s the responsibility of the developers of the system, working with the schools, to monitor and ensure it is. I don’t think it’s a reason to just dismiss the idea out of hand on political grounds, before it’s even been tried.

    Regarding accuracy, facial recognition is a maturing technology that is rapidly improving – so a report from even 2 years ago isn’t necessarily representative of the situation today. You have to remember too that in typical police/crime scenarios where you’d be very concerned about errors, you’re dealing with long-distance video or CCTV footage of crowds of random people. That makes high accuracy harder to achieve.

    For the dinner hall situation we’re discussing, you are presumably trying to identify one single person who is standing right in front of the camera, and you already expect that this person is one of just a few hundred pupils in your database – there aren’t millions of random members of the public to account for. Putting my software developer’s hat on, that would seem to me like the ideal situation from a technological perspective to get super-high accuracy. But obviously, time will tell if the system in Scotland does produce any problems.

  • From what I can gather from social media, this proposal has been paused at one school while they deal with concerns raised by parents.

    As an aside, a while ago I was listening to a radio discussion about the use of facial recognition software to catch criminals using normal CCTV in wider society. This required holding data on those who may be wanted for questioning, or ‘persons of interest’, but also required scanning every face to find them.

    The ethics of this were interesting, because as most on here will know, facial recognition software isn’t totally accurate, and tends to be less accurate for people of colour. Therefore it’s more likely to lead to innocent black people being stopped than innocent white people. Then there’s the whole thin end of the wedge debate, and who decides which people are of interest to the police and should be followed.

    I started off very sceptical, but the police officer who is in charge of it all provided me with some reassurance, in part because he too shared privacy concerns, and had given thought to what would happen if a totalitarian government were to take over. There’s clearly a whole load of safeguarding needed at every level, which should be subject to constant review, but his main point that reassured me of the general concept for tracking criminals, was that it was being managed by the police, not the government. In England at least, there are multiple police forces, who can scrutinise each other, which helps them to maintain independence from the government of the day.

  • And the LibDems continue their silence on free school meals for all pupils, which is the real solution to this issue as then schools can simply provide meals to all who have been granted access to their premises…

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