Sunday, February 13, 2005
RFID School Tags, Part 2 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
More articles on the use of RFID tagging in public schools seem to be cropping up in the wake of the Sutter, CA story (where families on the whole appear angrier about the unannounced ID card program than parents in Texas. Hmm.); one I read today on Geek.com brings up what I believe is a common misconception of how RFID tags would increase security in schools:
Regardless of the specifics of this case, are RFID tags a good idea for schools? It would certainly increase security, allowing systems to be set up to alert teachers when unauthorized people are on the grounds. It could also help to locate children if they had wandered off or missed a class, and it could be used as evidence if accusations were made about certain individuals. If you look at it this way then it seems like a good system for schools.
Misconception: "[RFID allows] systems to be set up to alert teachers when unauthorized people are on the grounds." RFID cards in themselves can not alert anyone the presence of unauthorized people, because the system can only track individuals who possess the RFID cards - not "strangers" who do not have them, who presumably would be the unauthorized people in a school. The only way an RFID system tracks unauthorized people is when a person passing through a checkpoint fails to "OK"-trigger with a valid RFID tag; this could be accomplished if all access points in a school were monitored with turnstiles or video cameras, which this sustem does not accomplish. Without full video camera or security guard coverage, it is difficult or impossible to verify that every instance of RFID-tag presence or absence matches the student or employee, because cards can be easily traded, copied, "surfed" or stolen.

But how likely is it that an "un-tagged" kidnapper or sexual predator would risk entering an RFID-monitored school to victimize a child? Much of the justification for using RFID cards in schools to protect against "stranger danger" predation and abduction - but, the reality is, "stranger" abduction and sexual abuse is far more rare than acquaintance crime. Most victimizations are either made off school grounds, where RFID tags have no monitoring capability, or by authorized persons known to the students such as school employees, or students - who would have presumably have valid RFID tags.

In this case, is it that unrealistic to think that an individual seeking to victimize a child might leave their ID card somewhere (in a locker, classroom, etc.) where it would allow them to enter and move about the school normally, but not alert their presence in proximity to the child in case a crime were committed? This is just one example, but there are many ways to circumvent the security benefits of RFID chip systems.

Additionally, RFID tags are not useful in tracking children if they wander away from school, or heaven forbid, are abducted: the devices are not geographic trackers, and only function in the proximity of RFID detector wands or kiosks - not in the open "field." Even if the cards were enabled as such, if someone adbucted a child from a school district that used RFID cards, you can be certain that the kidnapper would remove the card before leaving a tracking area.

While RFID tags can enhance attandance tracking of students within a school, I believe they offer a false sense of security when it comes to preventing kidnappings or other types of victimization. Security cameras would be equally Big-Brotherish, but ironically much more effective in preventing these types of crimes, because both people and their activities would be monitored - not merely the presence or absence of the RFID card.

What bothers me most is when people place blind faith in technology as a means of protection against human evil; if humans developed the technology, they can certainly find ways around it if they wish to do another harm. Schools may be marginally safer in some ways with RFID cards - but outside the perimeter of a school building, at home and play, students will still have to rely on their instincts and good sense for protection against predators. No ID chip can protect them there.

Good book: Gavin de Becker's "Protecting the Gift" candidly discusses the ways parents and children often look in the wrong places for both sources of risk and safety from kidnappers and sexual predators, and how they can better assess the true sources of these risks. I think this is a far more effective and realistic way to make children and teens safer than these school districts' "cattle-tagging" efforts.