Fingerprinting is becoming commonplace among schools in Sussex. But many parents and campaigners have grave concerns about the routine collection of such sensitive data with the organisation Leave Them Kids Alone, which campaigns against fingerprinting in schools, saying: "If a fingerprint is stolen, your child may have problems proving who they are for the rest of their life."

Rachel Wareing reports.

Schoolchildren across Sussex are using their fingerprints to borrow books, pay for lunch and register for classes.

Fingerprints, unlike library cards, cannot be lost or stolen.

Parents can see what their children are eating for lunch and can be immediately alerted if their child fails to show for classes.

Teachers do not have to waste time taking a register and school librarians no longer have to issue books.

It may sound as if there are plenty of good reasons to introduce fingerprint recognition in schools, but there is growing concern that this technology may not be as benign as it seems.

Privacy campaigners have argued that biometric information - unique biological features such as fingerprints and irises - is becoming an increasingly valuable identifier.

Already new British passports carry a chip encoded with a digital map of the holder's face, while fingerprints will be used in the Government ID cards which will begin to be issued to foreign nationals later this year.

So is it safe for such technology to be used so lightly in schools?

In a paper published last year, Professor Terrance E Boult of the University of Colorado, warned that we are at risk of identity theft if our biometrics are compromised.

He said: "The most serious flaw of biometrics is non-revocability. If a biometric is compromised, the user cannot simply generate a new one, as with passwords or PINs."

Leave Them Kids Alone, which campaigns against fingerprinting in schools, shares these concerns.

Conditioned The charity has warned: "A library card is something you have.

A fingerprint is something you are.

"If a fingerprint is stolen, your child may have problems proving who they are for the rest of their life."

The group fears children will become conditioned to handing over precious personal electronic data without a thought.

Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington DC, thinks this sets a "dark precedent", saying: "If ever there was a generation that would not oppose a government system for universal ID, it's this one."

In the face of public pressure, the education quango BECTA (the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) finally issued guidelines on biometrics in schools last year, several years after companies began marketing to schools.

While it advised schools they should "involve" pupils and parents in their decision to use biometrics, schools are not required to seek consent.

Bognor Regis and Littlehampton MP Nick Gibb is opposed to biometrics, particularly as the technology is being pioneered by commercial enterprises motivated primarily by profit.

Indeed, many parents and teachers may be alarmed to hear that Vericool, which has been in negotiations with Warden Park school in Cuckfield, to introduce a fingerprint system in its library and canteen, is owned by the American company General Dynamics, which supplies equipment and training to the US military.

Vericool has assured parents that the data cannot be hacked into and in any case could not be used for any other purpose other than that it was collected for.

On the firm's website, parents are advised: "Even though the technology is so robust and even though the data cannot be backward engineered, we strongly recommend that all parents are consulted before implementation begins."

Civil rights group Liberty is concerned about the lack of regulation in the industry and is offering legal advice to concerned parents.

The charity's policy director Gareth Crossman said: "Unfortunately these fingerprint schemes may be using technology just for the sake of it and without proper regulation. Before schemes like this become the norm, we must question if the biometric data of children is being shared, should permission be sought from parents, and is there truly no more proportionate alternative?"

Leave Them Kids Alone has found that in the majority of cases, parents are not asked whether they want the technology in schools. No one knows how many schools in Sussex use the system.

Despite the controversy that surrounds the use of biometrics, neither the Government nor local educational authorities in the county keep a record.

When contacted by The Argus, only Brighton and Hove City Council could give an approximate figure, stating that at least four primary schools use a library system which identifies pupils via their thumbprint.

Micro Librarian Systems, which produces library management systems, has revealed that it supplies 250 schools in Sussex.

Not all of these use fingerprint recognition, however. Brighton and Hove High School, for one, has installed the company's Eclipse system but has opted to issue pupils with swipe cards instead.

Though the system works equally well with swipe cards, manufacturers are keen to persuade schools of the advantages of fingerprint identification - and so far schools have been keen to believe them.

Companies say the data cannot be passed on to third parties, though this is not quite true.

While giving evidence to the home affairs committee last May, the deputy information commissioner David Smith revealed that under certain circumstances police may have access rights.

They also argue that the data is safe because an entire image of the fingerprint is not stored.

Instead the computer records finger minutiae (the points where ridges in fingerprints meet or divide) and the relationship between them, before digitising and encrypting the information into a template.

Image Digital Persona, the company which supplies Micro Librarian Systems, claims it is impossible to reverse engineer this template.

The firm says: "At this point, this template - even if you were able to break the encryption - would only be made up of these individual datapoints which could never be assembled to recreate a person's fingerprint image, somewhat like connect the dots' without knowing how the dots are assembled and what their relationship is to each other."

Yet in a paper published last April, three American academics - Arun Ross, Jidnya Shah and Anil K Jain - demonstrated that it may indeed be possible to reconstruct fingerprints from templates.

Andrew Clymer, a computing expert who was lead architect for Cisco Systems, believes no system can guarantee the security of information against future technology, saying "to protect lifetime relevant information is extremely tricky and potentially costly".

One of the claims made for the system is that pupils will no longer be bullied for their dinner money, or forced to take out library books for other pupils on their card.

But what if a bright and enterprising bully worked out how to fake fingerprints?

In 2002, a group of student researchers at the Yokohama National University made fake fingerprints using gelatin and were able to register them on 11 fingerprint recognition systems.

A report into their study, including an appendix which lists instructions for making an artificial fingerprint, can be found on the internet.