Home Payments Scottish authority rolls out facial recognition tech for school-meal payments

Scottish authority rolls out facial recognition tech for school-meal payments

Lunchtime: the local authority says that facial recognition technology makes payments 'more efficient and enhances the pupil experience' | Credit: Hans Braxmeier; Pixabay

A local authority in Scotland is introducing facial-recognition technology to enable pupils to pay for their lunches.

Nine schools in North Ayrshire, a relatively rural region that is one of Scotland’s 32 council areas, are to take meal-time payments by scanning students’ faces.

The technology is being installed by a private company, CRB Cunninghams, which describes its tech as ‘brand new to UK schools’ on its website. The company says that pupils can select their meal, ‘look at the camera and go’, eliminating any contact when making the payment and enabling an average ‘serve time’ of five seconds per pupil.

North Ayrshire Council says the solution “enhances the pupil experience using innovative technology” and makes “service more efficient”, as well as making for “a safer environment for both pupils and staff given the ongoing risks associated with Covid-19.” 

The move has attracted significant media interest since being reported in the Financial Times (FT) a couple of days ago, with the Guardian describing it has ‘as a significant step towards the normalisation of the use of facial recognition technology by public authorities.’

‘Faceprint templates’ with consent

Public authorities’ use of facial recognition technology is a sensitive area and the council’s decision has caught the attention of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The ICO, which issued a 67-page opinion on ‘The use of live facial recognition technology in public places’ in June (as well as a blog), said this week that it would be “making enquiries with” the authority.

“Organisations using facial recognition technology must comply with data protection law before, during and after its use. In addition, 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. Organisations should consider using a different approach if the same goal can be achieved in a less intrusive manner,” an ICO spokesperson said in a statement to Global Government Fintech.

“Facial recognition involves faceprint templates being taken, which are measurements of key points on the face, where consent has been received,” the council explained in a statement. “In keeping with the ICO UK GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] guidance, pupils in [secondary school years] S4-S6 [typically aged 15-18] have been allowed to provide their own consent while pupils in S1–S3 require parental consent.”

The council said that it had “received an excellent response from pupils, parents and carers, with over 97 per cent of responses being positive and providing consent”, adding that “pupils often forget their PINs and unfortunately some have also been the victim of PIN fraud, so they are supportive of the planned developments and appreciate the benefits to them.”

‘Optimal solution to meet all our requirements’

The council’s statement went on to describe contactless payment using facial recognition as “very fast and efficient” and “gives time back to pupils to spend with friends or at lunchtime activities”. It added that “the time taken to be served at till points is a common complaint and potentially one of the reasons why pupils opt to go out of school grounds for lunch.”

It further said that its “catering system contracts are coming to a natural end and we have the opportunity to install IT infrastructure which makes our service more efficient and enhances the pupil experience using innovative technology.” 

“Given the ongoing risks associated with Covid-19, the council is keen to have contactless identification as this provides a safer environment for both pupils and staff. Facial recognition has been assessed as the optimal solution that will meet all our requirements,” the council added.

In a press release on its website on 15 June entitled ‘CRB Cunninghams Launch Facial Recognition to UK Schools’, the company states that its software ‘is intuitive enough to work with face masks, so there is no impact on time savings even with a partial face scan.’ It adds that facial recognition data is encrypted using the AES 256 encryption standard ‘to offer schools the highest level of security and compliance’.

Global Government Fintech understands that a meeting between the council and ICO is planned later this week.

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Ian is editor of Global Government Fintech and also writes for media including City AM and #DisruptionBanking. He is former UK director for the pan-European media network Euractiv (2011-2018), editor of Public Affairs News (2007-2011) and news editor of PR Week (2000-2007). He was shortlisted for ‘Editor of the Year’ at the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) Awards in 2010. He began his career in Bulgaria at English-language weekly the Sofia Echo.