Manchester City Council

Cheshire East Council

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Please, sir, I want some more

Ibrahim Hasan looks at the significant issues raised by the use of facial recognition in schools.

Earlier this month the Financial Times reported that, “nine schools in North Ayrshire will start taking payments for school lunches by scanning the faces of pupils, claiming that the new system speeds up queues and is more Covid-secure than the card payments and fingerprint scanners they used previously.”

For a few years now, schools have used biometrics including automated fingerprint identification systems for registration, library book borrowing and cashless catering. Big Brother Watch reported privacy concerns about this way back in 2014. Now a company, called CRB Cunninghams, has introduced facial recognition technology to allow schools to offer children the ability to collect and pay for lunches without the need for physical contact. In addition to the nine schools in Scotland, four English schools are reported to be introducing the technology. Silkie Carlo, the head of Big Brother Watch, said: 

“It’s normalising biometric identity check for something that is mundane. You don’t need to resort to airport-style [technology] for children getting their lunch.”

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The law on the use of such technology is clear. Back in 2012, the Protection of Freedoms Act (POFA) created an explicit legal framework for the use of all biometric technologies (including facial recognition) in schools for the first time. It states that schools (and colleges) must seek the written consent of at least one parent of a child (anyone under the age of 18) before that child’s biometric data can be processed. Even if a parent consents, the child can still object or refuse to participate in the processing of their biometric data. In such a case schools must provide a reasonable alternative means of accessing the service i.e. paying for school meals in the present case. 

POFA only applies to schools and colleges in England and Wales. However, all organisation processing personal data must comply with the UK GDPR. Facial recognition data, being biometric, is classed as Special Category Data and there is a legal prohibition on anyone processing it unless one of the conditions in paragraph 2 of Article 9 are satisfied. Express consent of the Data Subjects (i.e. the children, subject to their capacity) seems to be the only way to justify such processing. 

In 2019 the Swedish Data Protection Authority fined an education authority (SEK 200 000 ,approximately 20 000 Euros) after the latter instructed schools to use facial recognition to track pupil attendance. The schools had sought to base the processing on consent. However, the Swedish DPA considered that consent was not a valid legal basis given the imbalance between the Data Subject and the Data Controller. It ruled that there was a breach of Article 5, by processing students’ personal data in a manner that is more intrusive as regards personal integrity and encompasses more personal data than is necessary for the specified purpose (monitoring of attendance), Article 9 and Articles 35 and 36 by failing to fulfil the requirements for an impact assessment and failing to carry out prior consultation with the Swedish DPA. 

The French regulator (CNIL) has also raised concerns about a facial recognition trial commissioned by the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Regional Council, and which took place in two schools to control access by pupils and visitors. The CNIL concluded that “free and informed consent of students had not been obtained and the controller had failed to demonstrate that its objectives could not have been achieved by other, less intrusive means.” CNIL also said that facial recognition devices are particularly intrusive and present major risks of harming the privacy and individual freedoms of the persons concerned. They are also likely to create a sense of enhanced surveillance. These risks are increased when facial recognition devices are applied to minors, who are subject to special protection in national and European laws.

Facial recognition has also caused controversy in other parts of the world recently. In India the government has been criticised for its decision to install it in some government-funded schools in Delhi. As more UK schools opt for this technology it will be interesting to see how many objections they receive not just from from parents but also from children. This and other recent privacy related stories highlight the importance of a Data Protection Officer’s role.

Ibrahim Hasan is a solicitor and director of Act Now Training. He can be contacted This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

All the recent GDPR developments will be discussed in detail on Act Now's forthcoming GDPR Update workshop. It has a few places left on its Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice course starting in November.

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