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Florida lawmakers to probe biometric scans of school children

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Florida lawmakers on Tuesday will begin tackling questions of privacy that arise when technology catches up with science fiction.

Florida is considering legislation to sharply regulate the use of fingerprint, palm print, iris scans and other biometric identification systems once found only in futuristic thrillers such as "Mission: Impossible" and "Minority Report."

The issue is being taken up after parents were outraged in 2013 to find students' eyes were being scanned as a condition of boarding school buses in central Florida's Polk County School District.

Stanley Convergent Security Solutions, a part of Connecticut-based Stanley Black & Decker, captured the iris images of 750 students in a pilot project before it was stopped, according to the local Lakeland Ledger newspaper.

Neither parents nor the school superintendent were informed of the project before its launch, the newspaper reported.

The company's website calls iris scans second only to DNA in providing certain identification.

The Florida Senate's education committee will take up a bill on Tuesday that would require school districts choosing to use biometrics to establish strict policies on the public disclosure, use and maintenance of the stored data, and require parents to choose to participate in the program before their children's data is taken.

Florida's Pinellas County School District in 2011 was the site of another biometric pilot project, which used palm scans to check students into the school lunch lines.

Art Dunham, director of food services for Pinellas County, said palm scans make lunch lines move faster to help make sure students get time to eat their food.

The district leads the nation in the use of palm scanners, which are employed in 50 districts in 10 states, with more pilot projects under way, according to Kent Schrock, spokesman for the Fujitsu Frontech, the Japanese manufacturer.

The palm scanners look at the pattern of veins under the skin which Shrock said are unique like fingerprints. He said some school districts prefer palm scans to other biometric devices, because they are not part of law enforcement databases.

Biometric data is covered under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which provides parents certain rights over their childrens' school records, but has not received attention so far from states, said Khaliah Barnes, director of the student privacy project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group based in Washington, D.C.

Recent changes in the rules have allowed more access to student information by third parties, Barnes said, a trend that her group is fighting as the first step in losing control of student information.

Biometric information typically is held by third-party contractors, Barnes said, suggesting schools should use lower-tech alternatives.

"It's very hard to explain why in a K-12 context when that information is so sensitive ... that schools need biometric information," she said.

(Editing by David Adams, Mohammad Zargham and Ken Wills)

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