The innocuous term 'kiddyprinting' refers to the controversial practice of routinely fingerprinting schoolchildren. Many parents are unaware of it because they have not been asked for their explicit consent, or in many cases even notified that it is taking place.
There are no official figures for how many schools in England use some form of biometric identification system. Terri Dowty, director of Action on Rights for Children (ARCH), claims 'thousands certainly. But local authorities aren't keeping any records.'
Fingerprint templates do not count as sensitive data in the UK, she says, and so controls are limited. It was only after years of pressure from ARCH and, more recently, the Leave Them Kids Alone campaign that non-statutory guidance on the use of fingerprints was issued to schools in July 2007. Campaigners are far from satisfied and a House of Commons early day motion has been tabled calling for a full debate.
But isn't this alarmist when the fingerprints are only being used for library, catering and registration systems? Dowty argues that behind the issue of biometrics there is the question of what kind of information the databases themselves are storing: 'School canteen systems are storing information on each child's individual school meal choices and library book reports are being generated that break down by ethnicity, age and gender what a child has been reading. This is a terrible intrusion.'
There is also a security risk: 'Manufacturers say that they're encrypting the fingerprints so the systems are secure but they won't guarantee them beyond ten years. And that's because with the developments in technology, in ten years' time the landscape will be unrecognisable. We are entering a stage where biometrics are becoming increasingly important for security-critical functions and if there does come a time when it's easy to reconstruct fingerprints where you have access to accompanying personal data, it will be a bonanza for anyone who wants to forge identities.'
Helping the police
Jim Knight, the minister for schools and learning, also said this summer that the police could help themselves to the children's fingerprints if they are trying to solve a crime - regardless of whether they have ever previously been in trouble with the law. Dowty says it is turning us from a nation of free citizens into a nation of suspects: 'Why should we have our fingerprints or DNA stored if we have done nothing wrong?'
The Criminal Justice Act 2003 gave the police new powers to retain DNA samples of anyone arrested for a recordable offence. As a result of increasing numbers of children being picked up for low-level offences and then routinely DNA-sampled, Dowty estimates that samples from close to one million children are now on the National DNA Database. According to Home Office figures, between 33,000 and 82,000 of these have never been convicted or even reprimanded. Going by Youth Justice Board arrest statistics, Dowty believes the figure is probably at the higher end of this range.
In addition to the principle of routine DNA sampling, Dowty is also concerned about how reliable it is in practice. She says that people don't realise how often mistakes are made with DNA samples, especially with techniques such as low copy number (LCN) DNA testing, where forensics try to generate a DNA sample from one cell. Far from being the infallible test of popular understanding, the FBI and others have, since 2001, urged caution when using LCN DNA sampling as a forensic technique.
In an effort to predict which children will become delinquent the government now wants to collect children's data in a central trilogy of databases containing medical information, school results, social work case notes and records from other public services.
First, ContactPoint is an index of every child in the UK from 0-18 years. Second, the Electronic Common Assessment Framework (eCAF) will serve as an in-depth profiling mechanism; it is, in Dowty's opinion, 'the most intrusive personal assessment tool'. And third, there's the Integrated Children's System (ICS), holding the social care records of each child.
Dowty argues that: 'Because we're so penny pinching we've developed this secondary prevention, which identifies all children from deprived areas as potential criminals and of course stigmatises the child completely.' She sees these surveillance techniques as just a technical fix for the real problems and dangers facing children, and believes they mask the chronic shortage of child protection social workers.
'In most areas there is something like a 20 per cent vacancy rate for child and family social workers and in some closer to 50 per cent,' she says. 'What we've never done is tackle this shortage and look at why so many are leaving the profession. We also have this obsession with managerialism and targets. We're pretending that people with social care problems are susceptible to a production line approach - and they're not. It's actually a very dangerous approach.'
Dowty believes the government must be prevented from going any further. 'We must start enforcing laws on consent. It's something parliament hasn't looked at since 1969 and it is time we had a review. That'll be a start,' she says.
Action on Rights for Children: www.arch-ed.org
Leave Them Kids Alone: www.leavethemkidsalone.com
The advisory council of the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) has conducted a report on 'Children's Databases - Safety and Privacy', downloadable from [www.ico.gov.uk