New lunch system scans students' fingers

A new computer system that scans students' fingers to access their lunch accounts has made some parents in Douglas County anxious.

Developed by Comalex Inc. of Arkansas, the system was recently introduced to several elementary schools in Douglas County. Rather than using an account number, students slide their index finger over a digital scanner which identifies the student and accesses a food account.

Supervisor of school nutrition Denise Higgins said the system makes it much easier for students to get their lunch. She said it prevents students from waiting in line and allows more time for recess and exercise. Plus, she said, it keeps students from using each other's account numbers which happened with the old system.

However, parents have expressed concern that their children are being fingerprinted without their permission.

A mother of students at Jacks Valley Elementary School who wanted to remain anonymous said she had no idea her children's fingers were being scanned at lunch.

She said no one had notified her of the change in technology, and said she was concerned other parties could obtain her children's personal information.

Higgins said parental notification was left up to school principals, who chose to inform parents of the new technology in different ways, some describing it in newsletters sent home and others choosing to explain it at parent-school meetings.

Higgins was asked to speak at Zephyr Cove Elementary School's parent night to answer any questions about the new system.

Higgins said the program doesn't store fingerprints or any other sensitive data.

Shawn Tucker, vice president of Comalex Inc., said their technology scans only points on the finger and from relative angles between those points computes a series of calculations unique to the student. He said the identification process does not create a fingerprint, but a series of measurements.

Tucker addressed concerns of privacy and access to data. He said that if the FBI were to subpoena him and demand access to a given school's lunch system, all they would find are algorithms denoting who bought what on what date and for how much.

There are no fingerprints in the database, Tucker said.

Gardnerville Elementary Principal Cris Etchegoyhen said she can already see a decrease in the time kids are waiting in line.

She said there are still a few problems. Some students didn't get an adequate scan the first day the system was used and need to re-scan their fingers for the database.

These students' accounts are being accessed by their names.

Etchegoyhen attributed the problem to students not washing their hands well enough and possibly building up dirt on the scanner lens.

She said one parent requested that her child not use the scanner, and the school accommodated her.

"We need to give parents the right to make choices they need to make," Etchegoyhen said.

First-grader Joanna Caro said she liked the new system because it's easy to use.

"It's funny. It feels weird," she said.

-- Scott Neuffer can be reached at sneuffer@recordcourier.com or 782-5121, ext. 217.

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