UK schools are installing facial recognition cameras in canteens

Students are able to pay for their lunch using only their faces.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
2 min read

Some children in UK schools are paying for their lunch with their faces.

JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty

Some students in the UK are now able to pay for their lunch in the school canteen using only their faces. Nine schools in North Ayrshire, Scotland, started taking payments using biometric information gleaned from facial recognition systems on Monday, according to the Financial Times.

The technology is being provided by CRB Cunningham, which has installed a system that scans the faces of students and cross-checks them against encrypted faceprint templates stored locally on servers in the schools. It's being brought in to replace fingerprint scanning and card payments, which have been deemed less safe since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The technology is also designed to speed up lunch queues. The managing director of CRB, David Swanston, told the FT that the system cut average transaction time per pupil down to just five seconds.

"Our catering system contracts are coming to a natural end and we have the opportunity to install IT infrastructure which makes our service more efficient and enhances the pupil experience using innovative technology," said a spokesman for North Ayrshire Council. "Facial Recognition has been assessed as the optimal solution that will meet all our requirements."

There is an ongoing global debate about the ethics of using facial recognition technology -- particularly live facial recognition -- and whether it's at odds with our civil liberties. Earlier this year, the use of facial recognition technology in schools was banned in Maine. The UK doesn't have any such laws in place -- it's up to individual schools to make decisions about how to use biometric technology.

In a blog post published in August, North Ayrshire Council announced the introduction of the facial recognition technology, asking parents to look out for details of how to register. "Exciting changes are coming soon for how parents and carers pay for school purchases," it said.

Around 97% of parents have reportedly given consent for their children to be scanned by the system in keeping with GDPR guidelines, and older children have been allowed to consent for themselves.

The UK's biometrics commissioner, Fraser Sampson, said that just because schools have access to the technology doesn't mean they should necessarily use it. "If there is a less intrusive way, that should be used," he said.

CRB Cunningham didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.