ORONO, Maine — Hand scanners are now commonly used for students to gain entry to University of Maine dining halls as a way to foil the costly sharing of student identification cards.
The hand scanners, installed in Hilltop, Wells and York dining commons last semester, are mandatory for all students with an unlimited meal plan. Within the next few years the university plans to require their use by all students who eat at the dining halls.
The scanners were installed to keep costs down and eliminate the sharing of MaineCards, a practice that can cost UMaine up to $4,100 per card, the price of a meal plan for an academic year, according to Director of Auxiliary Services Dan Sturrup and Director of Dining Operations Kathy Kittiridge.
“The scanners were installed to ensure the integrity of our contracts so we can keep our prices low,” Sturrup said in an interview.
“If people are sharing meal plans, it increases food costs, which in turn increases the costs overall for students,” Kittiridge added.
The scanners cost UMaine $331 per unit. The total expense was about $5,000, including installation costs, which came directly out of the auxiliary services budget, according to Sturrup and Director of Technology Management Benny Veenhof.
Auxiliary staff members said they visited numerous other schools across the country that have adopted the technology successfully — including the University of New Hampshire, the University of Rhode Island, and the University of Georgia — in order to better understand how hand scanners could be installed at UMaine in a cost-efficient manner.
“These scanners are being used across the country successfully,” Sturrup said. “Even middle school lunch programs and the health profession are starting to use them. Our system is different and didn’t require a new computer system. We just plugged it into our existing system and it is safe, secure and it didn’t cost a lot of money.”
Veenhof said that because hand scanners require less maintenance than the MaineCard readers, in the long term they will save the university money.
“So far there hasn’t been any problems with them,” he said. “With the old system the registers that read the cards needed to be replaced regularly, and that can get expensive. These should be much easier to fix should anything ever happen to them.”
How the scanners work
“The scanners use safe infrared technology to scan your palm,” according to the MaineCard Service Center on the University of Maine website. “A vein map of your palm is created via black lines that are converted through an encrypted algorithm and connected to your MaineCard ID number. The information is stored in a database which resides on a secure private network that also connects to the registers.”
Each scanner resembles a small bucket and is placed next to the register. A student places a hand on the scanner. The individual’s unique vein map is scanned and the student’s account is charged accordingly.
When asked why cashiers couldn’t simply check the photograph on the MaineCard to deny usage to anyone but the registered cardholder, Sturrup said: “Photos get old, worn and faded. When there are large lines of people it’s unreasonable to ask the cashier to check every photograph, and it’s often too difficult to tell if the photograph is the actual person holding the card.”
Some students using the scanners question whether the devices are sanitary, whether the new technology infringes on their privacy, and whether their personal information is secure. Sturrup and Veenhof insist that the scanners are sanitary, and that all student information will be deleted once they no longer have a meal plan.
“The record the scanner keeps can only be accessed at our registers. The scanners do not scan students’ fingerprints or any other personal data, and all information is stored safely on our private network,” Veenhof said.
When asked about whether the devices are sanitary, he added: “The scanner is in the shape of a bucket. Touching of the surface is minimal. Students should be less concerned scanning their hands than touching a door handle.”
Kittiridge noted that at every register there is hand sanitizer available to students, and that if asked, the cashier can wipe down the scanner with an antiseptic wipe.
How the students feel
University Auxiliary staff members said the majority of students are now comfortable with the scanners and enjoy their convenience. Although the university says it is “flexible” about requiring students to use the hand scanners, first-year student Alex Richardson says he didn’t have a choice.
“It was mandatory for me, and it made me uncomfortable,” he said. “They are an extreme waste of money, are much slower then swiping a MaineCard, they aren’t sanitary, and dining simply won’t admit that they wasted money and made a mistake. Just think of where else that money could have been spent. Everybody feels that way.”
“The scanners are annoying and completely unnecessary,” added fourth-year student Nicole Wentworth. “Half of the time they don’t even work right. They are a waste of time and money. That money could have been used on something the students actually need, like replacing the ancient computers in some of the labs. The old swipe system worked just fine.”
Sturrup acknowledged there have been problems with the system but said they have since been corrected.
“We did have some problems in the beginning, as you do with any new technology, but they have been corrected, and the system is running smoothly,” he said. “The vast majority of students are now comfortable with the scanners and prefer not having to dig for their MaineCards.”