Friday, February 11, 2005
California School Tagging Students with RFID Chips 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
UPDATE: Scott at Grits for Breakfast mentions that a similar test was underway in Texas. There's a good story on TexasISD.com dated November 17th, 2004 - "In Texas, 28,000 Students Test an Electronic Eye," which describes the process in more detail, and brings up some valid caveats in using these cards with schoolchildren. Unlike the Sutter, CA school RFID tag test site (see below), the stated main reason for instituting RFID tagging in Spring, TX is to locate students in the event of kidnapping. Interestingly, Spring police chief Alan Bragg states in the TexasISD.com article that the district has never experienced a child kidnapping.
[O]n the morning Felipe and Christopher shared a seat on bus No. 38, the district experienced one of the early technology hiccups. When the bus arrived at school, the system had not worked. On the Web site that includes the log of student movements, there was no record that any of the students on the bus had arrived.

It was just one of many headaches; the system had also made double entries for some students, and got arrival times and addresses wrong for others. "It's early glitches," said Brian Weisinger, the head of transportation for the Spring district, adding that he expected to work out the problems.

But for the Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, where administrators gave ID cards with the RFID technology to around 460 students last year, the computer problems lasted for many months.

The system is set up so that when students walk in the door each morning, they pass by one of two kiosks - which together cost $40,000 - designed to pick up their individual radio frequency numbers as a way of taking attendance. Initially, though, the kiosks failed to register some students, or registered ones who were not there. Mark Walter, head of technology for the Buffalo school, said the system was working well now. But Mr. Walter cautions that the more ambitious technological efforts in Spring, particularly given the reliance on cellphones to call in the data, are "going to run in to some problems."

In the long run, however, the biggest problem may be human error. Parents, teachers and administrators said their primary worry is getting students to remember their cards, given they often forget such basics as backpacks, lunch money and gym shoes. And then there might be mischief: students could trade their cards.
Middle and high school students already wear ID badges, but they have not yet been equipped with the RFID technology. Even so, some bus drivers are apparently taking advantage of the technology's mythical powers by telling students that they are being tracked on the bus in order to get them to behave better.
It is "naïve to believe all this data will only be used to track children in the extremely unlikely event of the rare kidnapping by a stranger," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the A.C.L.U. Mr. Steinhardt said schools, once they had invested in the technology, could feel compelled to get a greater return on investment by putting it to other uses, like tracking where students go after school. [read full article]
Regular readers will know I'm staunchly opposed to the developing practice of radio frequency ID - or, "RFID chipping" human beings and their day-to-day activities; so I find the details of this news story from Sutter, California especially alarming. Brittan Elementary School recently instituted a RFID-tag program to track students on school grounds, without seeking input from families in the district. Understandably, many of these parents are furious. From the Chicago Tribune [Associated Press]:
"Sometimes when you are on the cutting edge, you get caught," [Brittan Elementary School principal Earnie] Graham said, recounting the angry phone calls and notes he has received from parents. Each student is required to wear identification cards around their necks with their picture, name and grade and a wireless transmitter that beams their ID number to a teacher's handheld computer when the child passes under an antenna posted above a classroom door.

Graham also asked to have a chip reader installed in locker rooms and bathrooms to reduce vandalism, although that reader is not functional yet. And while he has ordered everyone on campus to wear the badges, he said only the 7th and 8th grade classrooms are being monitored thus far. In addition to the privacy concerns, parents are worried that the information on and inside the badges could wind up in the wrong hands and endanger their children, and that radio frequency technology might carry health risks.

Graham dismisses each objection, arguing that the devices do not emit any cancer-causing radioactivity, and that for now, they merely confirm that each child is in his or her classroom, rather than track them around the school like a global-positioning device. The 15-digit ID number that confirms attendance is encrypted, he said, and not linked to other personal information such as an address or telephone number.

What's more, he says that it is within his power to set rules that promote a positive school environment: If he thinks ID badges will improve things, he says, then badges there will be. "You know what it comes down to? I believe junior high students want to be stylish. This is not stylish," he said. (Ed's note: proof that Graham is out of touch with the reality of the objections is in the fact that it is mostly parents who are reacting angrily at having their children chipped without any community input - not students complaining about ID tags' "un-stylish"-ness.)

This latest adaptation of radio frequency ID technology was developed by InCom Corp., a local company co-founded by the parent of a former Brittan student, and some parents are suspicious about the financial relationship between the school and the company. InCom plans to promote it at a national convention of school administrators next month.
Besides the Big-Brother aspect of the story, something else triggered my "Something Is Rotten In The State of..." detector: the fact that the founder of InCom, the company that makes the chips used at Brittan, works in the school system - and the money that changed hands.
InCom has paid the school several thousand dollars for agreeing to the experiment, and has promised a royalty from each sale if the system takes off, said the company's co-founder, Michael Dobson, who works as a technology specialist in the town's high school. Brittan's technology aide also works part-time for InCom.
From the Collegiate Times:
InCom, the maker of the radio ID tag, is paying the elementary school for agreeing to use the system. Further, the company has agreed to pay the school royalties for each subsequent sale of the product. Clearly, the school is crossing the line of ethical behavior. It is one thing to accept money to carry one line of soft drinks. It is entirely different for educators to accept money to track children in the same fashion that farmers track cattle.
What school officials seem to be forgetting is that keeping traceable records of students' regular whereabouts can be as much a safety hazard as a precaution:
Tech students place their trust in an honest, ethical technological system each and every day. If an unscrupulous person where to obtain the Hokie Passport records for a student, it would not be difficult to ascertain their whereabouts in a given day. It is for this reason we must all be vigilant in insuring that the application of technology is used in a safe, legitimate manner. Tracking elementary school students does not qualify as a legitimate application of technology.
The paranoid part of me sees that debuting RFID chipping in an elementary school makes perfect sense: young children are unlikely to be disturbed by the civil liberties implications and may even consider the devices "cool" - perhaps even serving to allay some parents' objections to the practice - and if the citizenry is exposed to routine "chipping" at such a young age, they will have far fewer objections to being chipped later in life.

Again, it's about the money. From Wired News:
"In California, the funding of schools is based on attendance," Boylan said. "Therefore we want (attendance) to be as accurate as we can. If we are wrong for whatever reason, it means we are getting less money than we should be getting." The system provides an audit trail to back up the district's claims if the state questions their numbers.

[However, the school's attorney Paul Nicholas] Boylan couldn't say how scanners above bathroom doors would help track attendance. InCom installed scanners outside 7th and 8th-grade classrooms at Brittan and above bathroom doors in a cafeteria. But Boylan noted that the bathroom scanners never worked properly anyway, and the school has since asked InCom to remove them.

Boylan said the school properly notified parents about the test, as the law requires, and got no complaints. He said the school held an open board meeting to discuss the test and posted public notices describing the essence of the test, but could not say where exactly the notices were placed. "At the office, possibly in town," he said.

On Jan. 12, Brittan did announce in its weekly newsletter (PDF) that the school would soon require students to wear ID badges, but didn't mention RFID chips or scanners in classroom doors. It said only that the school would soon issue "new safety ID badges" that students should wear "at all times" during normal school hours. The announcement also said students would be held accountable for the cost of replacing lost or destroyed badges.

Lauren Tatro said that when principal Earnie Graham distributed the badges, he didn't mention the RFID chips in them or give students a choice about wearing the badges. "Students asked questions," Tatro said, "but they couldn’t really be answered very well. We got just the basics of what they were but nothing about the tracking."
George? George Orwell? Where are you when we need you?

MORE: Wired News, "School RFID Plan Gets an F"
Details on the chipping system available at the InCom website; we're likely to see more widespread use, as the company is apparently a member of the American Association of School Administrators.
InCom's press release [PDF] on the California test chipping program
ACLU of Northern California