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Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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Editorial: Palm-scanning ban in Pinellas schools makes no sense

State lawmakers were wrong to outlaw a successful program that uses palm-scanning technology to move students through the lunch lines in Pinellas County’s public schools.

Instead of listening to testimonials from people using the technology, lawmakers bought into an overblown argument that the scans might somehow, someday violate the privacy rights of those students.

Never mind that the technology has worked beyond anyone’s expectations, and that district officials say it has eliminated the inefficiency and fraud perpetrated under the old system of lunch cards and PIN numbers.

There have been relatively few complaints from parents, leaving any privacy intrusions to exist in the critics’ fertile imaginations. Pinellas lawmakers should back their school district and mount an offensive during the next legislative session to overturn the ban.

Critics became alarmed when retinal scans were used in Polk County, without the prior knowledge of parents, to track students getting onto and off buses.

That led to a bill banning the retinal scans along with other biometrics, such as palm scans and fingerprints in schools. It passed though the House and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott. It gives Pinellas a year to wind down its program and find another way to track students through the lunch lines.

“It’s a disappointment and a burden to all those people who love this system,” says Art Dunham, the Pinellas school district’s food services director. The district invested $160,000 in the technology several years ago, becoming a pioneer in the nation. Not only do the scans move kids through the lunch lines quicker, giving them more time to eat, they eliminate the stigma of having students on reduced or free lunches being singled out in front of the other kids, as they were under the old system.

It takes about four seconds for the scanner to read the unique vein pattern under a student’s palm, divulging the student’s identity, how much money is in their account and any food allergies. It also offers a convenience for parents wanting to add money to their child’s lunch account from home.

Under the old system, students sometimes entered the line without their lunch cards, holding things up while their identities and account information were established by other means. Dunham says PIN numbers were sometimes traded among students or surreptitiously read over a student’s shoulder, resulting in fraudulent expenditures. And unlike the retinal scan program in Polk County, the Pinellas district alerted parents to the program and allows them to opt out if they object. Few of them do.

Some lawmakers said they fear the unknown about biometrics and think it might result in identity theft down the road. But no Social Security numbers or other personal information is gathered that might raise serious privacy concerns.

The palm scans are a proper use of technology that saves time and prevents fraud. Too bad the proven Pinellas program was swept up into a larger debate about what might or might not happen in the future. Lawmakers chose to ignore the facts and vote their fears.

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