Security, Cafeteria-Style

This application of biometrics keeps you from losing your lunch

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 26, 2006

4 Min Read

5:15 PM -- OK, you've developed one of the most advanced forms of biometric authentication on the market. Now, where's the best place to test it?

Right! On a bunch of underprivileged Scottish schoolchildren.

The following comes to us from Security.IT.World:

A Scottish school has turned to biometrics as part of a nationwide push to encourage children to eat healthier meals.

The cafeteria at Todholm Primary School, in Paisley, Scotland, has gone cashless and students are buying lunches by holding their hands over a palm-vein recognition unit produced by Glasgow-based Yarg Biometrics Ltd. It's the first school to use the system. Inside is the same palm-vein scanner from Japan's Fujitsu Ltd. that can now be found on thousands of bank cash machines across Japan.

The system relies on an infrared image of the palm of a user's hand. It reveals the pattern of veins present under the skin and from this an algorithm can confirm identity of the user. It takes into account identifying features such as the number of veins, their position and the points at which they cross and offers a higher level of security than competing technologies including voice print, facial recognition, fingerprint recognition and iris scan, according to Fujitsu.

Children in low-income families in Scotland are entitled to receive free school meals, but until now the system has relied on a number of methods, such as the kids presenting different colored tickets or queuing in a different line, to differentiate those from children who pay for their own meal. As a result, it's relatively easy to work out which kids are from low-income households, and some students avoid receiving their free meal to escape the stigma that might go with it.

Going cashless will make this difference invisible but replacement systems involving swipe cards have their own problems with younger children such as the cards being lost, said Alan Cunningham, managing director of Yarg Biometrics Ltd., in an interview...

It was installed about six weeks ago and the school is so-far very happy with it, he said. "The kids love it," said Cunningham. "It's the whole James Bond thing..."

The Scottish Executive wants all 1,800 primary schools across the country to go cashless over the next five years and has earmarked £70 million (US$131 million) for the "Hungry for Success" meals initiative. Yarg says the system can also be extended to room access control and as a way to sign kids into each class they attend...

As I look at this story, I have a number of conflicting thoughts and questions. First, as a parent of a six-year-old, I applaud the Scottish Executive for choosing biometrics, rather than a token authentication system. My daughter has lost everything I've ever handed to her, including two gerbils, my fifth anniversary watch, and most of my checking account. Giving her a smart card for lunch would be like putting her on a hunger strike.

Second, I can't help but wonder what they have for lunch in Scotland. I keep getting images of Star Trek's Scotty in my head, saying "Aye, the haggis is in the fire now for sure."

Third, and most importantly, I have to wonder why a small school district in Scotland can make biometrics work, but major corporations around the world have yet to even try. True, until recently, the technology was often kludgy and expensive. But with PC companies like Lenovo now building fingerprint readers directly into their devices, does it make sense that corporations are still dragging their feet?

A study published earlier this week by IDC and (ISC)2 suggests that biometrics has become one of the top technologies of interest among security professionals worldwide. (See It's the People, Stupid.) But when you actually visit most corporations, you see very little actual implementation.

Maybe it's time we took a hint from the Scottish schools and did a few pilots of our own. The technology has improved significantly, the cost is down, and with the current wave of corporate system leaks and identity theft, it's a solid investment.

As for me, I'll have the tater tots.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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