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Big Brother is Watching Your Kids: Florida School District Scans Students' Irises Without Parents' Permission

Parents are outraged at Polk County School District's privacy violation.
 
 
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Parents are outraged after learning a Florida school district scanned students’ irises last month without obtaining permission, WFTS-TV reports.

Polk County School District installed eye-scanning cameras on school busses at three locations—an elementary school, middle school and high school. The technology was put in place as part of a pilot security program, but many parents didn’t learn about it until children brought up the scanners at home.

"I thought it was kind of creepy, it's kind of like big brother looking after your kids," Emily Palmer, a Polk County parent, told WFTS.

The school district partnered with Stanley Convergent Security Solutions to try out its EyeSwipe-Nano technology.

Rob Davis, director of support services for Polk County Schools, said the program is designed to track student movement as they get on and off the bus. Illustrating this rather dystopic vision, Davis explained, “Within seconds, we could tell parents, 'Yes, they got on bus No. 0750. They got on the bus at the high school at 2:05; they arrived at their bus stop at 2:45.”

Parents received a letter on May 24 announcing the EyeSwipe-Nano program, adding that students would need to obtain permission from the principal to opt out. Oddly enough, the letter announced a launch date from the past, May 20. By the time families received the letter, students on 17 school busses already had their eyes scanned.

Irate parents tried to call the school, but had to wait through a long Memorial weekend to get answers. Polk County Schools issued an apology Thursday, and put the program on halt. Meanwhile representatives from Stanley Security Solutions says the company destroyed all the information obtained without parents’ permission.

"I would have had the same questions, so I apologize to those families because that was not our intent. The intent was not to cause chaos or confusion with the parents," Davis told WFTS.

Meanwhile, the community took to social media to express their discontent.

“It seems like they are mostly focused on this program, like the program was the problem,” wrote one parent in a widely-circulated Facebook post. “It’s not, it’s the invasion of my family’s Constitutional right to privacy that is the problem, as well as the school allowing a private company access to my child without my consent or permission. This is stolen information, and we cannot retrieve it.”

The Polk County “security” program bears resemblance to initiatives in other school districts that ignite debates of security verses privacy. This classic debate draws particularly passionate arguments when it comes to the nation's schools, where a spate of Orwellian programs has recently launched in name of “protecting our children.” Last year, a Texas school district came under fire after a high school student objected to RFID (radio frequency identification) chips planted in her student ID, the same technology used by the Department of Agriculture to track livestock.   

Steven Hsieh is an editorial assistant at AlterNet and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.

 
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