The Hazleton Area School District in Pennsylvania will now provide free meals to all students, regardless of need. But there's a gigantic catch: It is scanning students’ thumbprints to track all of their lunch purchases and is then turning the data over to the federal government, according to a new report.
The move raises questions about the true motive for the federal government program that incentivizes school districts to provide more meals to more students, so long as they track their pupils with biometrics.
“We will at least break even, if not come out ahead because of federal reimbursement,” said district superintendent Craig Butler.
In order to qualify for the program, the district purchased biometric software to track students who receive free or reduced-cost lunches. The student’s thumbprint is scanned each time he or she receives a meal.
“This data provided by the biometrics was made available to the district and federal government for tracking purposes,” local newspaper The Citizen's Voice reported.
Administrators refused to clarify just why they had the privacy invading tracking and said they were “unsure” whether they will continue the tracking scheme.
But, like most tracking programs across the nation, the district didn’t indicate how the data was being protected, if it could be used to identify an individual student or how long the federal government would retain it.
Similar fingerprint and tracking initiatives, usually in return for 'free' food, have been met with stiff resistance from parents, when they have been disclosed.
Massachusetts’ North Adams Public Schools deployed a similar lunch payment program using scanners.
While the district "wanted to make sure those transactions are as transparent as possible,” it specifically does not want to make it transparent what data is collected, who is using it, for what purpose or for how long.
“No child should have to have a body part scanned to get a meal! There was no problems with those swipe cards that we were never made aware of,” said one parent on Facebook, who replied that she would send her child with a bag lunch before allowing a fingerprint scan.
“Let us not allow our children to allow privacy to become a thing of the past. Our duty is to educate and protect them, not to catalog them like merchandise,” parent Cara Roberts wrote in a letter to the mayor and a news outlet.
“Our duty is to teach them to protect and care for their bodies. What message are we sending when we tell them their body is a means of identification, a tool for others to use to track them?”
Despite promising to be the most transparent administration in history, the Obama team is notoriously tight-lipped on such initiatives and has refused to clarify anything about the data collection and what it would be used for.
Officials also declined to specify why fingerprints were necessary to track lunch purchases rather than swipe cards or other, more effective, authentication measures.