TALLAHASSEE — With one lawmaker referring to a “God-given right to privacy,” a House panel Thursday unanimously cleared a measure that includes a ban on collecting and using public students' biometric identifying information, including fingerprints, retinal scans and voice prints.
The House Education committee approved the bill (HB 195) without dissent, though Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressed concerns that the ban was an overreach.
The prohibition is largely a reaction to scanners in Pinellas County schools that check the vein patterns in students' palms to authorize cash withdrawals from pre-paid accounts. That speeds along lunch lines, giving students more time to eat, officials say.
School officials also say that banning the practice, among other things, will mean that their $155,000 investment in biometric technology will go down the drain.
Ban proponents say they're trying to prevent future identity theft, though there hasn't been a reported misuse of a school system's biometric database.
Rep. Carl Zimmermann, D-Palm Harbor, a teacher, asked if yearbook photographs were any more dangerous to student privacy than palm prints. That seemed to catch bill sponsor Jake Raburn, R-Lithia, off guard.
“There's no denying that your palm scan is something that we don't know how that could be used against you,” he said.
Some Polk County parents were upset when they learned their school system had been scanning children's eyes to track comings and goings on school buses but hadn't first sought permission.
Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, added that schools are saving time and money with the technology and those savings can go toward learning.
But Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City, suggested that immigrants have come to America to free themselves from the spying of oppressive regimes.
The bill also bans gathering the political affiliation, voting history and religious affiliation of students and their parents.
“As technology advances, we risk losing that right, that we as Americans feel is a God-given right to privacy,” she said.
We may think our data is secure, Porter added, “but there are no guarantees. And biometric information is very scary because that is absolutely individual.”
Thursday's approval clears the bill for debate on the House floor. A companion measure (SB 188) has been moving through Senate committees.