The brushed aluminum box on the brick wall glows purple, a rim of light around an unblinking HAL-like eye.
You peek in and stare for a second, and the steel doors click open. A soothing female voice says: «Identification is completed.»
Welcome to Park Avenue Elementary School.
Freehold Borough School District installed the iris-scanning devices in its three schools last month. It and a district down the road in New Egypt are the first U.S. school systems to study what happens when adults are asked to eye-scan to get in the door each day.
Privacy and safety experts — as well as locals — are divided over the use of such technologies. But as more school districts make safety a priority after 9/11, many say such biometric devices could become standard issue.
For what it’s worth, they’re a hit with Park Avenue Elementary’s secretaries.
«You’re kind of the first line of defense for intruders,» says Sari Valenti, who surveys the wall of windows at the front doors, the only entry point visitors are allowed to use. Those who scan can skip the doorbell.
Valenti concedes that the system, purchased with a $370,000 U.S. Justice Department grant, is «maybe a little overkill for a small town.» But she likes that people «can come and go now without feeling like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to bother the ladies in the office.'»
All visitors must still check in and get a computerized ID sticker.
«There still isn’t any way to get into the building without human contact,» Superintendent Philip Meara says. He says Freehold isn’t particularly crime-ridden and hasn’t seen kidnapping attempts, but like most districts, it has its share of child-custody battles.
He wanted to upgrade safety and knew that the first thing to do was secure the front doors. Freehold’s swipe-card ID system «wasn’t working well,» so Meara decided to study iris scanning, one of the technologies eligible for the federal security grant.
Parents began signing up last fall, submitting to scans of eyes and driver’s licenses. At last count, 300 of a possible 1,500 had enrolled; many who declined cited privacy concerns. Participation is optional, and Meara doesn’t plan to change that.
Privacy advocates such as Lillie Coney of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., say people’s concerns are justified; government agencies and computer hackers could someday access the data.
«Eventually it’s going to be used in ways that have nothing to do with getting into those three schools,» she says.
Meara says the data stay at school; the school district’s attorney says he could fight law enforcement requests to release it. But Coney says they’d be powerless to resist a request, for instance, under the USA Patriot Act.
Ray Bolling of Eyemetric Identity Systems, the New Egypt company that installed the system, concedes, «You’re not going to fight them.» But he adds that «there’s nothing harmful that can be taken out of someone’s iris code.»
In the USA, iris scan technology is used mostly in secure government installations and high-tech corporate headquarters. It is more commonplace in overseas airports in several European and Middle Eastern countries.
The United Nations uses iris scans to register refugees on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and used the technology after the 2004 tsunami, says Jim Miller of ImageWare Systems, a biometric ID company in San Diego. The U.S. military also is using portable iris scanners to identify Iraqi civilians, says Greg Peterson of SecuriMetrics, a Martinez, Calif., biometric security company.
The technology is more accurate than fingerprints, Miller says.
Bill Modzeleski, who oversees school safety for the U.S. Education Department, applauds Freehold’s innovation but cautions that it’s «a balancing act» between cost, convenience and community values. He says the scanner effort’s low turnout suggests it might be keeping parents away. «Schools have to be welcoming places, and if you have the majority of people avoiding school because it’s not a welcoming place, that’s a consideration.»
He also says such high-tech solutions may not be for every school, especially when budgets are tight. «At the end of the day, the question that everybody has to ask is: What is the need?»
One recent afternoon, a teacher scanned her iris to enter, but as the door unlocked, another teacher appeared. The first teacher held the door — and an alarm sounded. «One of the purposes of the study is to see what people’s response is,» Bolling says.
Another teacher, who had refused to participate, pressed the doorbell and was buzzed in, but an alarm went off anyway. «She’s an intruder in our eyes,» secretary Gladys Maletzky joked.
For Maletzky, who is «known for chasing people down the hall,» the system has been a blessing.
She has scanned the mailman’s eyes and plans to scan the guy who loads snack machines. That afternoon, UPS driver Camilo Dominguez came by. He had been promising to sign up for weeks and finally consented.
She took his picture with a digital camera and had him stare into a scanner like the one on the wall outside.
«It will make my life easier,» he says, but «it’s probably an unwanted expense, if you ask me.»
«It’s a grant,» Maletzky says.
«It’s still an unwanted expense. But we’ve got to change with the times.»