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Concerns flare over Encinitas school district contract

Encinitas Union School District students use iPads at El Camino Creek Elementary. A new contract that has drawn parent scrutiny proposes to simplify iPad logins, either through a keyed-in password or biometric facial recognition software.
Encinitas Union School District students use iPads at El Camino Creek Elementary. A new contract that has drawn parent scrutiny proposes to simplify iPad logins, either through a keyed-in password or biometric facial recognition software.
( / U-T San Diego file photo)

A proposed pilot program that would allow Encinitas elementary students and teachers to log in to their district-issued iPads via facial recognition software has come under fire.

Last month, a petition was posted at change.org urging the Encinitas Union School District to reconsider a $63,000 contract with the company Virtual Keyring, which specializes in biometric face sign-ins.

So far, the petition has garnered 345 signatures.

“I am signing this because I do not want my children’s pictures stored as biometric data,” resident Heidi Martin wrote, adding it’s “a huge waste of district funds.”

District Superintendent Tim Baird last week said the contract’s goal is to simplify logins to save instructional time. Instead of having to input a password for each iPad program, students could sign in to all apps either with one keyed-in password or a biometric face scan.

“We may have a dozen programs that kids use over the course of a day, and all of them have unique passwords, user names and sign-ons,” Baird said. He added this is a common problem in classrooms.

Baird said some parents have been spreading misinformation about the contract before having all the facts.

“I know the loudest voices right now have been those who have been expressing concern, but they haven’t really talked to us about any of this,” he said. “They haven’t really waited for any information.”

Parent Jennifer Hamler, a school board candidate in last fall’s election who started the petition, wrote in an email that $63,000 for bypassing a password is a “reckless use of taxpayer money.” Hamler did not respond to a request for a phone interview.

Her petition also took issue with facial biometrics, saying the technology isn’t completely safe.

How facial biometrics work: An iPad takes several pictures, compares those with an existing encrypted image and verifies the person’s identity.

In response to concerns, Baird said the district could in no way store biometric pictures, but if parents don’t feel comfortable with the technology, their students could sign in to programs by typing in a single password.

“Single sign-in capability is what we’re after with the contract,” Baird said. “Biometrics has turned into the main story, when it’s really a side note.”

Baird also said Virtual Keyring’s software would add another layer of protection for student, teacher and administrative data.

Virtual Keyring claims its login technology is even more secure than strong passwords. Its website states:

“Passwords can be stolen and used by anyone, which is the basis behind over 90 percent of identity theft and stolen information. Virtual Keyring’s security technology ensures that only live and authorized users are able to access secured information and devices.”

Addressing biometric logins, the website also says that only company support can see or access images.

“Images are instantly converted to an encrypted algorithm to be used ONLY for comparison to previous sessions for user verification. They are not displayed, shared or distributed outside of the Virtual Keyring system.”

Virtual Keyring is designing the single sign-on software, which could take the rest of the year, Baird said. If the technology meets district standards, a group of EUSD students, teachers and administrators will test the technology for a first-of-its-kind pilot program.

And if the pilot is deemed a success, the software will eventually launch districtwide.

Upon the district board approving the three-year contract in March, the district paid $25,000 of the $63,000. However, should the district decide the pilot program is a failure, it could cancel the contract and would be reimbursed any funds paid to Virtual Keyring, according to the agreement.

“If it works, great — if it doesn’t, then they give us our money back and everybody walks away,” Baird said.


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