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Biometric scanners installed

By Kevin S Lin     1/10/12 6:00pm

Hang around Jones College long enough with a full bladder and you might notice something new at the loo. Biometric fingerprint scanners were installed outside of all community bathrooms and will be replacing the old keypad locks.

Prior to the fingerprint scanners, students had to enter digits into the keypad to gain access to the bathroom.

Director of Housing & Dining David McDonald decided to install the biometric scanners on the bathrooms after seeing them on Rice's graduate housing because he said the keypads were not effective safeguards.

McDonald said that the scanners were installed in community bathrooms because they were the weakest security link. While the stairwell doors have relatively secure card scanners, the bathrooms previously had only the keypad. The doors were often propped open or had a sticky note with a valid PIN attached to the door, McDonald said.

Jones President Steven Boswell agreed with McDonald.

"Most people know the pass-codes to the community bathrooms, including many people from off campus," Boswell, a senior, said. "It's a security risk."

The scanners were initially installed on graduate apartments in July 2010 as part of an opt-in pilot program to increase security, according to Graduate Housing Manager Beth Raffety. The scanners were quickly adopted by everyone in the building, Raffety said.

McDonald said he saw the technology and wanted to replicate it for the Rice undergraduate population.

McDonald said the scanners at Jones comprise the start of a five-year plan to outfit all college community bathroom doors with scanners. Other colleges that have community bathrooms include Brown, Hanszen, Old Will Rice and Old Baker.

McDonald hopes to install biometric scanners in two more colleges over the summer based on the feedback H&D receives from Jones.

McDonald also hopes to eventually outfit the college stairwell doors with the same biometric scanners. There is currently a pilot program toward this end going on at Lovett College, where a biometric scanner was installed by the stairwell the previous semester.

Each fingerprint scanner costs between $3,000 to $5,000 to install, depending on the installation costs for a given location — approximately equivalent to the cost of installing a card reader, according to McDonald. He said that these costs also include the operation costs for the project.

Boswell said that while it took three to four seconds for students to punch in the keys on the old keypad locks, the new scanners activate in about a second.

"Biometrics is frankly just an exciting proposition," Boswell said. "It's neat to use a new technology, and it is a lot faster than the old keypad entry systems."

Jones College Coordinator Michelle Bennack said students who oppose the scanners believe that they are an invasion of privacy.

However, McDonald said that the university does not record a copy of the student's actual fingerprint. Instead, an algorithm detects thirty or so key points of a person's finger, encrypts this information so that it becomes a string of numbers and then uses this string to ascertain a match.

According to Boswell, students may feel that the scanners are inconvenient. Currently, all Jones students must register their fingerprints — one finger from each hand — in order to access the community bathroom. This presents a problem for those with significant others who lived off campus or were not from Jones. Boswell said that the purpose of the scanners was not to make Jones less hospitable to outsiders, but to increase security. To that end, Jones will add anybody that has a close association with Jones to the database. Bennack said the scanners can be disabled for the duration of college parties.

Students had both positive and negative reactions to the technology.

"I think they are an efficient system," Jones freshman Lilia Ramos said. "It's definitely a big help when you're in a hurry to get to the bathroom."

Jones freshman Andra Smith agreed that despite initial difficulties, the system is effective.

"They get the job done," Smith said. "Some people had some issues getting their fingers scanned, but after they got it in the system, there was no problem."

Still, others saw the scanners as an inconvenience. "You have to put your thumb on slowly," Jones senior Kevin Moscon said. "You have to put it on just right. It takes a couple of seconds. Honestly, we can probably key in faster."

"I think when you have anything new, you have people who are naturally cautious," Boswell said. "Once they get informed about the nature of the technology, they tend to accept it."

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