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School iris-scanned students without telling parents

A Florida school admits that it made several mistakes when it allowed a security company to install iris scanners without telling parents -- and without even having a contract with the company.

The eyes have it? Or the eyes were had?
Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

There's a quaint concept that seemingly every technology company dismisses as outdated.

It's called opting in.

Should you not be familiar with it, it's the notion that you ought to choose before, say, all the people in your address book are contacted by a company they've never heard of.

And wouldn't it be lovely to have a choice over whether your kids should have their irises scanned, as they get on their school bus?

The parents of around 750 kids in several Florida schools never got that choice -- because of what might be politely termed a series of errors and less politely as "what the hell is going on around here?"

Here was what one parent, April Serrano, told the The Ledger when she found out that her 8-year-old son had been made to stare into a blue light until it changed color when he got on a bus: "Just repeating that story makes my skin crawl."

Peculiarly, no one at the schools district seems entirely sure how a security company called Stanley Convergent Security Solutions was allowed to install and operate the scanners without parents being told. Or, indeed, without a contract being signed.

Rob Davis, a Polk County district administrator, admitted to the Ledger that several mistakes were made. He said that he had no idea who (if anyone) had ultimately authorized Stanley Convergent to insert the iris scanners, which the company says have an accuracy rate of 200 times that of fingerprints.

He said that his secretary had sent letters to school principals explaining the idea (and offering merely an "opt-out" option), only after it had started. There seems no clear explanation of why this might be.

What is alleged, though, is that Stanley Convergent appeared on three East Polk campuses without any legal agreement in place.

The final decision ought to have been that of interim school superintendent John Stewart. Oddly, he seems also not to have been informed -- another piece of communication that either was late in arriving or was never sent.

The Ledger quotes Ann Marshall, a safe schools specialist who seems to have been responsible for the iris scan scheduling, as saying: "It's just a busy place. And unless you have an appointment to move something ahead, it's not like you have an opportunity to chitchat. It's not that anyone didn't want to tell him (Stewart)."

It seems as if not one school lawyer looked through the proposed contract and approved it.

This has left some parents suspicious. Connie Turlington, parent of an 11-year-old, told The Ledger: "It sounds like a simple case of it's better to ask forgiveness than permission."

Some might find it touching that a concept seemingly born in Silicon Valley has made it all the way to Polk County, Fla.

You might remember Polk County. This is the same place where 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot was expelled for putting toilet cleaner and tin foil in a water bottle and watching it go "pop."

Could it be that the very same Polk County Schools District tried to conduct a scientific experiment of its own?

I have contacted Stanley Convergent to ask whether it is normal to install iris scanners before the signing of a contract. E-mails obtained by The Ledger under a public records request reportedly show that the company tried to get a contract signed.

However, these e-mails also show that Lum Thornhill, assistant director of operations at the schools district, had allegedly been told by Stanley Convergent that it could "do the registration and keep the files on a computer until we get the clearance."

The schools district now admits that its enthusiasm for any biometric security has somewhat waned.

Davis told the Ledger: "We learned a valuable lesson here, to say the least. It was truly not to fast track or invade anyone's privacy."

I am sure that many parents won't feel quite so grateful for the learning experience, even though Stanley Convergent has said the scanning information has been deleted.