Instead of paying for their lunches with crumpled dollar bills and loose change, students in Carroll County schools are having their palms scanned in a new check-out system — raising concerns from some parents that their children's privacy is being violated.
The county is one of the first localities in Maryland to use the PalmSecure system, in which children from kindergarten to 12th grade place their hands above an infrared scanner. It identifies unique palm and vein patterns, and converts the image into an encrypted numeric algorithm that records a sale.
Though the school system does not store those images, some parents have complained about the implications of having their children's hands scanned. About 20 percent of parents have declined to participate in the program, said supervisor of food services Karen Sarno.
"I didn't appreciate how they handled it," said Mike Richmond, who has two children at Westminster's Cranberry Elementary School. He said that the school scanned their hands before sending the opt-out form. "I'm concerned about it. I know it's the way of the future, but it's fingerprinting, it's palm-printing."
School officials defend the system, noting that the algorithm is the only piece of data stored; it is used to identify a child's account. If students opt out of the service, they give their names to the cashier, who manually charges their accounts.
Sarno said the school system's goal is to decrease the time between transactions. Children have limited time to eat lunch, she said, and she often hears complaints that children don't like waiting in a long line.
"We're doing whatever we can to reduce that line wait and make the queue better," she said.
The PalmSecure system is used in schools around the country, including in Louisiana and Mississippi, where news reports say some parents also complained about an invasion of privacy and the costs of the system. The Pinellas County, Fla., school system was the first to implement the scanner last year.
In Maryland, Cecil County is piloting the system in two schools, according to a spokesman there.
Khaliah Barnes, open-government counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that schools should have allowed parents to opt in to the service, rather than out.
"With students, this presents unique privacy threats," Barnes said. "We're talking about elementary school students, and that type of technology can make children less inclined to the rights of privacy. Imagine being tracked from age 8 to age 16, and then a university continues to use it, it becomes old hat and makes them less inclined to recognize privacy threats."
Barnes compared the biometric palm scan to the full-body scans in airports, which became the primary tool for screening passengers in 2010. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Barnes said, EPIC discovered that, though the body scanners do not record images of passengers, they do have storage capabilities.
The PalmSecure system is currently operating in three Carroll County elementary schools, but should be in every school within a year and a half.
Darryl Robbins, acting principal of Carroll County's Robert Moton Elementary, which is piloting the system, said that it has helped increase the speed of lunch lines and has shown added benefits.
"Now that we've combined everything in point of sale, we don't have students moving around the cafeteria and in that capacity, it's helped increase student safety," he said.
Robbins declined to comment when asked if he had been contacted by concerned parents.
Other point-of-sale systems in state schools use a card reader or a PIN to access a child's account. Sarno said that the drawbacks of such systems — especially for elementary school students — are that the children tend to lose the card or forget the PIN. The palm-reading system also eliminates the possibility of other students lending out their cards or numbers to others.
An audit released in March said the Carroll County school system's method of tracking student meal purchases was not efficient. The school system only used a cash register to process meal purchases, which the auditor said could lead to reporting and accounting errors for student meals. Recommendations included researching a new cash register system.
The palm-reading system is a remedy for this problem, Sarno said. In the future, parents should be able to pre-pay electronically on their students' accounts, as well as monitor when and what meals their children are eating. Currently, they can only pre-pay for meals on a child's account through a check.
"We have a better cash-handling control centrally," she said. "And less daily cash being handled and putting more in a lump on the account, there's less daily pennies and dollars. From a business standpoint, all that documentation is being fiscally responsible."
The palm-reading system will cost a projected $300,000, according to Sarno, for installation of software and hardware in all 43 schools in the system, as well as in the central office.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun