In what education and civil liberties groups are calling another large step for Big Brother, some Texas schools are employing student identification badges equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips.
Identification badges with RFID chips now track the whereabouts of students in Texas’ Santa Fe and Spring school districts. The chip technology is also used to track cattle.
The Spring school district started using the RFID technology in December of 2008. Currently, approximately 13,500 students out of 36,000 in the district have the identification card with the chip embedded. Chip readers are located around the campuses and on school buses.
The Santa Fe district began using the technology earlier this year, calling it the Smart Badge program. It began employing the technology after hearing the Spring district uses it.
Supporters of the badges say they enhance security and increase attendance. The Spring district says it has recovered $194,000 in state funding since December of 2008 because students are often found on campus even though they aren’t in their classroom.
The district has also pointed out that in the event of a fire, the chip would allow them to know if students are trapped and where they are located.
Supporters say there is no evidence of health or safety risks associated with the tracking devices.
But not everyone is comfortable with using RFID chips to track children, especially in an age of technology hackers who they worry could tap into the system and track the children outside of school.
Down the Slippery Slope
Maureen Martin, senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute remarks, “People who were watching carefully could see this slippery slope coming a long time ago. First, veterinarians began implanting microchips in the bodies of pets so they could be located if lost. ‘It’s for Fido’s safety,’ they said.”
Martin continued: “Now students are being required by school officials to wear tracking devices to monitor their whereabouts. ‘It’s for the children,’ the schools say. But coming on the heels of the Pennsylvania school district—which used laptop computer cameras to spy on and film students at home—fears of invasion of privacy raised by these badges both during and after school are not paranoid; they’re real.”
Martin warns RFID chips can be lost or intentionally misplaced by students, potentially leading to further privacy invasions.
“The problem is the students can ditch the badges just before they ditch school, which raises the question: Can implantation of devices into the bodies of students be far behind?” said Martin.
Making Students More Vulnerable?
Dotty Griffith, public education director of the ACLU of Texas, said, in comments for this story which she subsequently published at the organization’s Web site, “The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas urges parents to ask questions about this technology. Are the cards encrypted to prevent the information from being ‘skimmed,’ read, or copied? Without real security, RFID chips could make students more vulnerable to tracking, stalking, and kidnapping.
“Someone who wants to do harm could potentially sit in a car across the street and scan student IDs without teachers, school officials, parents, or students ever knowing that any information has been read,” she added. “And if this information can be read, it can be copied easily to a duplicate chip. A student could be taken off campus while the duplicate chip continues to tell RFID readers that the student is safely at school.”
Griffith additionally stated parents should be given clear information about RFID technology as well as the potential privacy and safety risks of an RFID attendance system—and reserve the ability “to opt out if they don’t want their children subject to this technology.”
School Improvements Preferred
“This is another example of the government hand reaching into the lives of citizens. Hopefully this is not a start of a disturbing trend,” said Kyle Olson, vice president of the Education Action Group based in Michigan.
“Traditional public schools could learn something from their rivals: Instead of needing to track students, how about creating a stimulating environment with highly effective teachers so students will want to be nowhere but the classroom?” Olson added.
Olson continued: “A school’s time would be better spent providing a better education, rather than monitoring unmotivated students in a subpar learning environment. How about putting students’ needs first and adult needs second? When that happens, Big Brother won’t be necessary.”
Questions for Parents
“Parents should ask the following questions if RFID is proposed at their students’ schools: What security measures are in place on the RFID chips? Does the RFID system use encryption and authentication so that my child cannot be tracked by someone who wants to harm her?” Griffith said
Other questions parents should ask, says Griffith, include: “What is the cost of this system? And where is the money coming from to pay for this system? Has the school considered a contact chip or bar code system that would not allow my child’s information to be read at a distance?”
Finally, remarks Griffith, parents need to know how data collected from the chips will be used, how long it will be kept, and how parents can opt out if they don’t want their children exposed to any potential risk from the chip.
Sarah McIntosh, esq., ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.