Is using thumbprint recognition in school libraries really sinister - or simply quicker and easier? STEPHEN LEWIS visits one York school to investigate.

IT is break time at Manor CE Secondary School. The learning and resource centre (what would once have been called the school library) is thronged with cheerful, noisy students.

Every seat at the bank of personal computers lining one wall is taken, and the teenage girl on duty at the library checkout desk - one of several pupils who act as assistant librarians - is doing a brisk trade in books.

"This is our KGB operative," jokes the school's head teacher Brian Crosby, indicating the girl. He is referring to the furore that has broken out since The Press revealed that 11 schools in the city are using thumbprint recognition technology to operate their library systems.

Mr Crosby invited the newspaper to visit his school so we could see for ourselves that the system is nothing like as sinister as some seem to claim.

None of the pupils taking out books seem to have any qualms about pressing the thumbprint keypad used to identify them.

There is no reason at all why they should have, says 15-year-old David Moorcroft gravely. David is one of the school's pupil assistant librarians - and clearly a bit of an IT whiz. Mr Crosby turns to him when he wants help in explaining how the thumbprint recognition system works.

David gives me a quick demonstration, re-registering himself as a library user so I can follow what happens. He presses his thumb to the keypad and for a split second, an image of his thumbprint appears on a screen.

It instantly disappears again.

That thumbprint is not stored anywhere, David says. All that happens is that certain measurements taken from his thumb scan are stored as digital numbers.

In future, when he wants to check out a book and presses his thumb to the scanner, it will recognise his thumb by cross-referring to those numbers, and bring up his library record - name, year and number of books he has out.

And that's it.

He cannot understand why anybody would be upset about a school library using such a system. It is so much easier and quicker than pupils having to mess about with cards - and possibly losing them.

The school's library system is not connected to any other network, and nothing is stored except those few digital numbers.

Supermarkets keep far more information on us than this system, the 15-year-old says. "It's a bit like you giving two digits of your telephone number to someone," he says. "They couldn't phone you with that."

Mr Crosby is shocked at the reaction to the news that some York schools are using such a system in their libraries.

What has happened in his school library over the past two to three years is a good news story, he says - and yet somehow it has been twisted in people's minds into something sinister.

The school's learning resource centre has been transformed. There is that bank of new personal computers for pupils to use in online research for a start, plus £5,000 worth of new books, and a range of new DVDs and audio-visual materials.

The centre, which is popular with pupils, has helped students at the school achieve excellent literacy results, Mr Crosby says.

"In an age when people are complaining bitterly about literacy levels among young people, we can celebrate record results at both Key Stage 3 and at GCSE," he says. "An amazing 95 per cent of all our students gained a C' grade or above in English Literature last year in their GCSEs.

"But what should be a good news story in terms of the impact it is having on young people is being turned into a conspiracy story that is based on inaccurate and misleading information."

There is nothing sinister about the system operated at Manor or any of the ten other York schools using it, Mr Crosby says.

The library system is not networked, so is not connected to any external systems and there is no danger about information on any pupils leaking out.

All that is kept is those digitally-encrypted numbers - and even those are deleted as soon as a pupil leaves the school, chips in David Moorcroft.

"This information is used for no other purposes than issuing a copy of Harry Potter or taking out a DVD," Mr Crosby says.

What is sinister, he adds, is not Manor School's library system, but the unacceptably low levels of literacy and numeracy among some young people today.

That, and the fact that so many children are allowed by our society to play violent video games, or access the internet at all hours of the day and night with little supervision.

Yet somehow it is schools like his, which do their best to educate young people and give them opportunities, that come under fire.

"It seems like a topsy-turvy world," he says.

Many of his pupils agree.

"It's only a thumbprint!" says 16-year-old Callum Jeffrey. Those who are worried about the system simply don't understand how it works, he says. It is used for taking out books and nothing else. "And I'm quite happy with that."

"I really don't see why everybody is making such a fuss about it," adds James Swanton, 15. "I could understand if the school was copying our DNA or something. But it's a fingerprint."

Yes, says Catherine Parker, 16, she can see that, in the future, society may have a problem with gathering too much data about people. But as long as you have got nothing to hide, you should have nothing to worry about.

She has no problem with the library system. "It is much better than the old system, and the rack with all the library cards in."

Mr Crosby says that as a result of the row, he will be writing to the parents of every child at the school to explain the system.

At the time it was introduced a couple of years ago at the recommendation of the school council - made up of students - he failed to inform parents, he admits.

"We didn't think that there was an issue of confidentiality, and it never occurred to anyone that there would be an issue of misuse of personal biometric data," he says.

Parents who are at all worried will now be able to have their children taken off the system, he says - and they will be issued with library cards instead.

But he has no plans to abandon the system, unless there is overwhelming parental demand.

"It would take a considerable amount of time to re-issue cards to all the students. I'm just amazed that people are talking in the way they are without any knowledge about what we're actually doing."

Privacy experts issue warnings about the surveillance society'

THE fingerprinting technology used in some York schools has sparked outrage across the city - but it could be just the tip of the iceberg.

According to privacy expert Gus Hosein, more than 71,000 children throughout England have had their fingerprints taken at school.

As well as the 11 York schools, King Jame's School in Knaresborough and Ryedale School in Nawton have used the fingerprinting system too.

There is thought to be at least one school in the East Riding of Yorkshire which uses a similar system.

Mr Hosein, a senior fellow at Privacy International, believes it is wrong for schools to use such security measures with children as young as five.

"It's just ridiculous and I can't understand why it only happens in this country," he said. "There are so many loopholes in the system and anyone who says there isn't, are fools."

Mr Hosein said it was being used all over the country without parental consent or knowledge.

"I can't even see the benefits to schools," he said. "The Government, offices and universities are not using it, so why should schools need to?"

Phil Booth, national co-ordinator of campaign group N02 ID, called the system "dangerous".

"Children are not given the same rights and responsibilities as adults, but this is taking it one step too far," he said.

"This kind of data schools are keeping could be transferred to adult life and could translate into something quite damaging."

The system should be treated with great care, he said, "Some children may think it's a cool piece of gadgetry but this will soon wear off. I believe it's a relatively trivial function that there is simply no need for."

The worst part, Mr Booth said, was that some schools were not seeking explicit consent from parents. He called for a systemic approach, rather than schools merely sending a note home with pupils.

"I just hope the system is not evolving around the country, as we live in more of a surveillance society, where schools are not only implementing this but subtly encouraging it," he said.

A City of York Council spokeswoman said: "The Local Education Authority has not issued any guidance to schools on the use of fingerprint recognition technology. It is for individual schools to decide how they wish to run their library services." - Alex Jackson