My eldest nephew is very excited at the moment. He has just turned eleven and is about to move to his new secondary school. Anyway, a few weeks ago, my sister showed me a letter she’d received via the assistant head at her son’s new school. It read:
I am pleased to inform you that we will be installing biometric fingerprint readers at the – – – School as part of the catering system.”
“Pleased to inform you… as part of the catering system!”, I parroted back, as my sister read on from the briefing, my own voice rising with incredulity. “They’re fingerprinting the kids to help with the catering?!”
“Yes, but he’s not going to have his fingerprints taken”, she assured me, “they’re not going to treat him like a prisoner. It’s not compulsory…” And she then read on:
“This will enable students to get their dinners more quickly by speeding up the payments process. It will also mean that they can put cash into the system (via paying in machines, like a ticket machine) whenever it suits them so that they do not have to carry cash around with them all day…”
I interrupted again: “But you could do that with a card or something.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, “that’s the alternative option…” And then continuing from the letter:
“Swipe cards can be issued as an alternative to the finger scanning however these can obviously be lost, forgotten or stolen.”
“So what are the other parents thinking?” I asked her.
“There are a few of us refusing but mostly they think it’s just a good idea.”
“Do you know what company’s behind it?” I asked.
“No, but there are some notes on the back…” And she turned the letter over to show me, adding: “perhaps you can check it out”.
On the back of the letter, there is indeed “information” about the biometric system being installed. Information that explains why: “students, parents and staff can rest assured that the fingerprint images cannot be used by any other source for identification purposes”, because “the software turns your child’s fingerprint into a mathematical algorithm” and about how “the image of the fingerprint is then discarded”.
What the notes fail to mention, however, is that this kind of “processing” is standard procedure when recording any kind of digital biometrics. With “image capture” followed by “feature extraction” leading finally to “digital representation”, data compression is an inevitability, but that’s okay so long as in this processing the “vital information” isn’t lost. The important thing is that “the encoded information is functionally as unique as the original, and as easily processed, i.e., compared.”
How do I know this? In part because I’ve just read through Chapter 8 of the Defense Science Board Task Force report on biometrics (p35–6) published in September 2006. Not that a report from the US Department of Defense has anything to do with the installation of a catering system at a school in Sheffield, obviously…
So the fact that “the information stored cannot be used to recreate an image of the child’s fingerprint”, as the notes on the back of the letter explain, is actually beside the point. The actual point being that they can be used to identify the child, because the information is still “as functionally unique as the original”. To put all this another way, a photograph cannot be used to reconstruct a perfect 3-D likeness of your head. There is a loss of information. But that obviously doesn’t mean a photograph can’t be used to identify you. It can, and even when still more information is removed, by let’s say photocopying it a few times, a photo will still retain a sufficiently detailed likeness to identify you. Biometrics are just the next step down. The original photo can be deleted, just so long as sufficient details are retained of, for example, how wide your mouth is and how close together your eyes are. With enough of the right pieces of information, they can distinguish one person from another, reliably and consistently. Which is how biometrics works.
All of this biometric information, “the unique digital signatures” are then held in the database, as the notes on the letter from school also explain. Less clear is who actually owns this database. And skipping through the other details on the back of the letter, I can’t immediately find the name of the company involved, but it does give the brand name of their “cashless catering system”, which is IMPACT. So I looked up IMPACT:
“A million users in over 1700 schools throughout the UK.
We design, build and maintain industry leading, reliable and functional cashless payment systems under the brand name IMPACT…”
Here begins the sales pitch on the homepage of CRB Solutions. Never heard of them? Nor had I. Well, it turns out that they are a “Serco Learning Partner”, one of many. Indeed, Serco have more than 20 current “Learning Partners” offering “solutions” to “clients” (i.e., schools and colleges across the country), which means they have access to a lot of biometric and other kinds of data on school pupils and college students. For instance, listed directly above CRB Solutions, there is Aurora Computer Services, who are:
“The UK market leader in face recognition. faceREGISTER is designed for sixth form registration or whole school lateness. faceREGISTER enables students to register automatically in school, college or university.”
Gone are the days, apparently, when teachers simply remembered their student’s faces. Now whenever a student is late:
“they will be asked for a reason why they are late and these marks are fed back to Serco Facility via our administration software faceMANAGER.”
Those of a more curious disposition are perhaps wondering what other kinds of personal information is downloaded at the “Serco Facility”. In fact, what other kinds of information more generally, since Serco already offers its services in sectors as diverse as environmental services, health, science, transport, local government, welfare to work, defence and nuclear. Nuclear? Yes, nuclear:
“We support the operation of over 20 nuclear reactors, and serve as the lead nuclear safety advisor to Westinghouse, designer of the AP1000 nuclear reactor currently under assessment for the UK’s new civil nuclear programme.” 1
That and the management of the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), which Serco says is the leading nuclear technology services provider in the UK, “with expertise across the full range of nuclear technology, including waste management, nuclear safety and non-proliferation, materials and corrosion and plant inspection.” So that’s pretty comprehensive. Aside from this, Serco also manages the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) as part of a consortium with Lockheed Martin and Jacobs. So the company behind the introduction of school biometrics systems across the country is also responsible for managing the UK atomic power and weapons programmes:
“Serco has a reputation for being a tad secretive. This is perhaps not surprising, as it manages the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire, where nuclear weapons are made, and runs the ballistic missile early warning system.
There are parts of AWE that even the head of the company, Kevin Beeston, can’t go into. Other secrets, too, are kept from him, such as where the company stores evidence on behalf of the National Crime Squad. “I don’t need to know or want to know,” he says.” 2
So begins an article entitled “Serco thunders down the tracks: Traffic lights, rail services, atomic weapons, the time of day. This secretive company manages them all” from the Independent on Sunday, published in March 2002. The article goes on:
“While many people haven’t heard of Serco, almost everyone in this country will have come across its services. It is Serco that runs the speed cameras on the M25, and maintains the traffic signals on a third of motorways in the UK. Half of London’s traffic lights are run by Serco, as are all the signals in Dublin. Manchester’s tram service, Metrolink, and London’s Docklands Light Railway (DLR) are both Serco-operated. When you ring National Rail Enquiries, you will speak to a Serco employee. The company has also built hospitals and prisons.
“In fact, Serco is so ubiquitous, it even sets the time. It manages the National Physical Laboratory, which owns the atomic clock that gives us Greenwich Mean Time.
“You’d be forgiven for thinking Serco was a government ministry.”
This article was published almost a decade ago and yet Serco‘s involvement in running public services was so large and far-flung that comparison is already being made to “a government ministry”. So just how did Serco manage to expand so rapidly and yet so inconspicuously? Well, here’s a brief overview of their rise and rise, taken from the same article:
“As well as having a novel corporate culture, Serco also has an intriguing history. It started out in 1929 as the UK maintenance division of RCA, at the time a cinema and radio equipment company. In the late Fifties it got its first taste of top-secret government contracts. The Ministry of Defence needed a radio equipment specialist to design, build and run the four-minute warning system for nuclear attacks. RCA got the job and has been maintaining it since.
“But it was in the early Eighties that the government-related business really started taking off. Beeston takes up the story: “Mrs Thatcher had come in power in 1979 and began reducing public sector costs on a tax-reduction agenda and carrying out privatisation. One of biggest areas that was first turned to contractualisation was the Ministry of Defence.”
“Happily for Serco, Thatcher’s successors, John Major and Tony Blair, both exhibited a fondness for getting the private sector involved in the public sector.”
Click here to read the full article by Heather Tomlinson:
Four years later and Serco were already being talked of as “probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of”, as a glowing profile of their CEO Christopher Hyman in the Guardian explained:
“Have you recently travelled on a train in northern England? Or on London’s Docklands Light Railway? Or perhaps been caught by a speed camera?
“If the answer to any of these questions was yes — or you have spent any time in custody or the armed forces — chances are you have dealt with the support services company Serco. With almost 48,000 people helping to service 600 largely public-sector contracts around the world, Serco is probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of.”3
No longer a small British subsidiary of a little known American corporation, by 2006, when the article above was published, Serco had gone global. Here, for instance, is taste of what Serco are already running in Canada, Ireland, Dubai, and Australia these days:
Taken from ABC Australia’s Hungry Beast.
Rebranded with Olympian titles, we are familiar with the names of most of our new gods: Blackwater and DynCorp, gods of war and reconstruction; Monsanto, god of harvests; Nokia, god of messages; Walmart, god of convenience; Aviva, god of life (insurance); but then, above and beyond all of these, there is Serco, the god of all the things the other gods don’t already do. A god without portfolio, and although not quite omnipresent, Serco is certainly “highly maneuverable”. As their own bragging PR likes to put it: “Serco has a finger in many pies”.
Now, having reached this point I realise that I have drifted well away from the original issue. My initial response to reading the letter from my nephew’s school having been to wonder at the kind of country we are living in. Already the most surveilled society in history, and now face-scanning and fingerprinting our children on a routine basis. In the process, as my sister says, we are already treating them as if they’re little criminals. Is it really necessary to hammer home the point here?
For we may believe this data can and will never be retrieved for uses beyond the bounds of the schools and colleges involved, but in permitting such licence we are nevertheless inculcating a sense of naïve trust in the next generation, which will normalise them to accept adult life in a surveillance society. We are teaching them to submit to authority. The word Orwellian is very overworked, but what other word can be applied in this instance? We are fingerprinting our children and entrusting that information to the major government defence contractor. And there is barely a raised eyebrow. Parents are mostly thinking that this is “helpful”. So please, if you haven’t done so already, read Nineteen Eighty-Four (not that Orwell has anything to say about fingerprint or face recognition systems, because back in the 1940s such hi-tech digital biometrics had yet to be imagined, let alone invented).
So what kind of a world awaits my nephew and his friends when he finally leaves school in five years time? Well, that will depend.
The road ahead is already laid. As our national assets and provision of our state sector were stolen away, Serco, and a few other giant corporations, absorbed the new workforce and took over. And now, as ours and other economies around the world begin to splutter and flail, they are about to suck up whatever remains at bargain prices. Finally, they will put up their toll-booths at every turn of our daily lives, and in the envisaged “cashless society”, these toll-booths will also be our checkpoints — logging every transaction and every movement.
History ought to have taught us to beware, its overriding message being that the rise of tyranny needs to be constantly guarded against. But those, like Thatcher and Reagan, who rushed us away from more direct forms of centralised government (supposedly to save us from a Soviet style tyranny) have delivered us instead into the talons of an unregulated and monopolised market. Any distinction between interests of the state and the corporations having thus been eroded, the takeover by multinationals such as Serco has been unstoppable. After all, someone has to be in charge of things. Serco then (and the pantheon of other corporate gods we must increasingly bow to) amounts to governance by another title, and not merely at a national scale, but transnationally — a few corporations becoming, in effect, arms of an unelected and largely unaccountable “global governance”.
This shift away from democracy and towards neo-feudalism is happening in plain sight. You even get the picture from Serco‘s own PR material — the closing overlapping mosaic of corporate heads in their latest video simultaneously and hypnotically announcing: “we are Serco”; with the eerie subtext being that “resistance is futile”. But resistance isn’t futile, not yet…
If you’d like further information about this widening programme of school biometrics then I direct you to a worthwhile campaign group called Leave Them Kids Alone (LTKA) that is calling for a stop to this latest encroachment upon our civil liberties, or rather, the civil liberties of our children.
2 From an article entitled “Serco thunders down the tracks: Traffic lights, rail services, atomic weapons, the time of day. This secretive company manages them all” by Heather Tomlinson published in the Independent on Sunday on Sunday 10th March 2002 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/serco-thunders-down-the-tracks-653444.html
3 From an article entitled “Happy, touchy-feely and driven by God: The Serco chief Christopher Hyman is unusual for his values of doing business, with staff and customers coming first and profit last” by Jane Martinson, published in the Guardian on Friday 24th February, 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2006/feb/24/columnists.guardiancolumnists