By the clock... or fingerprint scan

By the clock... or fingerprint scan


Friday, September 20, 2019

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Earlier this week news reports on the use of fingerprint scanners to verify the attendance of teachers in some schools came to wide attention. Some educational institutions have had to go for high-technology to ensure that records are properly kept.

In the past, schools and business places have kept track of their employees' punctuality and attendance with a log book. Usually a large, hardcover book with many blue, lined dog-eared pages, employees would sign their name and indicate the time when they got to work. If you've ever looked at one of the pages, you'll be amazed at how many people arrive seconds apart as the cut-off time comes close.

Since time is money and, for some, signing-in time is relative, organisations moved on to duty time clocks and each employee has a card which is punched and the clocks ensured the correct time is recorded.

They say, where there is a will there is a way, and the will of the latecomer is strong. Before long, the time clock was put to the test. It was alleged that tardy employees asked co-workers to punch their card on their behalf to make sure they were marked on-time and present for the day.

The fight for punctuality and accuracy had to get more technologically advanced and fancier devices came into the workplace. Where the budget was more generous, and infrastructure allowed, swipe cards and security cameras have been used to be ensure employees were kept on the straight and narrow.

At Mona High School, where this week it was revealed serious methods are in place to keep attendance registers, they chose the option of a fingerprint scanner. The school officials took the time to explain in media reports that the device doesn't actually keep the fingerprints in the traditional sense. The employee's finger is scanned and that image is then distorted into a code which is linked to a specific number assigned to each individual. A senior staff member keeps the information and can then check to see which teacher has been coming late or is absent.

Despite assurances by the school that the information is kept safe and confidential, some individuals are not comfortable with the situation. Karl Samuda, the minister with responsibility for education, has said that schools cannot compel their teachers to use these types of devices and the practice must be stopped. Minister Samuda has said that alternatives must be found for teachers who do not wish to be monitored in this way.

There have been concerns not just in Jamaica, but all over the world, regarding how biometric data is used and kept. Biometric data is the collection and recording of the unique things on your body that identifies you as you alone, for example, retina scans and fingerprints. Now that scammers and hackers work overtime to take what is not theirs, it is a valid concern how access to this information can be protected.

The other question is how much control do we have over our personal information in this digitally connected era? It has been said that in the 21st century privacy is dead. We hand over our information in many ways, sometimes without realising it. Social media is a collection of who we know, what we did, and what we plan to do. Businesses collect information on what we buy, where we bought it, to determine what we may spend money on next. We use our face and other body parts to lock and unlock phones and other devices. Smart homes collect information from what's in your fridge to what you choose to watch on television. All your business is on the super highway of the Internet.

In a discussion with friends, one questioned why the uproar. We will hand over all our vital statistics and any other information to get a visa or green card with no complaints, so what's the big deal with a simple thumb scan? Legal-minded individuals have pointed out that those who join the visa line do so of their own choosing. It's a different matter if you are ordered to comply to keep your job. Courts in different jurisdictions have ruled that employers must find a way to come to an agreement in which everyone feels their rights are maintained and protected when biometric data is being used.

Another friend took on the argument from the side of the businesses who have had to invest in all sorts of ways to keep their employees honest. “We mek it hard on we-self because we too dishonest,” he argued. “If we would just go by the rules then it wouldn't have to come to this.”

It is true that the actions of a few will complicate matters for the wider society, but how do we balance the equation? Experts say this is going to be the new normal. So, either you tek to “back-bush” and shun all things technology-related, or tek care with what you share.

Barbara Gloudon is a journalist, playwright and commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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