Encinitas school district nixes Virtual Keyring contract

The Encinitas Union School District recently terminated a contract that would have given students the option of logging into their district-issued iPads via facial recognition technology.

An online petition called for the end of the contract because of privacy concerns over iPad biometrics — facial scans — authenticating students. But this week, Encinitas school district Superintendent Tim Baird said the contract was canceled because the technology didn’t work with all iPad programs.

“There were a couple programs that were really a problem,” Baird said.

Last fall, the district board signed a deal with the company Virtual Keyring, which was tasked with developing software so that students could log in to all their iPad programs via biometrics or a single keyed-in password. Baird said that facial recognition was merely optional.

“I know there were a few people that were making a big deal over the facial recognition,” he said. “That was never an important point to us.”

District officials have said that students have to remember a dozen unique usernames and passwords for iPad programs, and so “single sign-on” was intended to simplify logins and save instructional time.

Going in, Baird said the district knew achieving a single sign-on would be difficult, since the district has a variety of iPad programs that are both cloud- and server-based.

The contract was only in the “proof of concept” phase. Because it was canceled early on, the terms state that the district will be reimbursed all funds — $25,000 paid to Virtual Keyring when the deal was signed in March, according to Baird.

He stated district staff terminated the contract in late June, and the board was notified shortly after. If the project had been successful, the district would have paid Virtual Keyring $189,000 over the course of the three-year contract.

Previously, district officials stated the Encinitas school district would probably be the first in the nation to have students log in to their iPads with facial recognition software. Initially, the plan was to roll out out the single sign-on software at one school and then go district wide.

Baird said that Virtual Keyring’s software did, however, accomplish another goal: adding another layer of protection for student, teacher and administrative data. He said the district is now looking for technology that both eases logins and beefs up security.

“Our IT staff is always looking at upgrading security of district data and student data,” Baird said.

A petition at change.org to end the contract gained 361 signatures.

Some parents wrote that it was just too much money to spend on bypassing passwords. Others said they didn’t want their kids’ faces stored as biometric data.

How facial biometrics work: An iPad takes several pictures, compares those with an existing encrypted image and verifies the person’s identity. Virtual Keyring’s website states that only company support can see or access the encrypted images.

“Regardless of the reason to cancel the contract, the end result is that the children in EUSD will not be part of this experiment,” wrote Jennifer Hamler two weeks ago in an update on the petition website. Hamler, a school board candidate in last fall’s election, started the petition.

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