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Should Students be Tracked with Radio Frequency ID Tags?

Privacy experts and school districts are at odds on the answer.

The same technology that is known for tracking packages in the mail; automobiles during the production progress; and clothes, shoes and other products to ensure efficient supply chain management also has been tracking students' whereabouts on K-12 campuses — for at least seven years.

While radio frequency identification tags (RFID) have been around for a while, their use hasn't been widespread in school districts. But as state budgets continue to shrink, some districts in Texas have turned to these tags to bring in more revenue. And privacy experts think they're a bad idea.

Radio frequency identification technology pilot

School districts across the country receive state funding based on how many students are in their seats for roll call. And when students aren't in their seats, they can't count them, even if they're on campus in the nurse's office, the counselor's office or elsewhere.

Northside Independent School District in San Antonio has tried a number of initiatives to get its 100,000 students in their seats. These initiatives include making phone calls to families, looking for students on campus, and offering financial or prize incentives for best attendance. They've also taken families to court and sent attendance officers to look for students at home.

But this year, Northside is trying a different way of dealing with the attendance problem. It's running a pilot with two of its 112 schools that have the lowest attendance: Jay High School and Jones Middle School. The daily attendance average for these schools was 94.2 and 94 percent respectively last year, compared to a district average of 95.3 percent. At Jay High School, that meant 174 out of the school's 3,000 students weren't in their seats when attendance was taken.

Starting in mid-October, the 4,200 students in these two schools will be required to wear student IDs on a lanyard around their neck.

But these IDs have something extra on them — a chip that stores a random number tied to the student's name. And at the 400,000 square-foot, two-story high school, 80 readers installed above the ceiling tiles read these chips.

The readers send out radio frequency electromagnetic waves, which an antenna on the RFID tag receives when it's near one of them. The antenna wakes up the chip in the ID card, establishing a wireless communications channel. The reader reads the number on the chip and pinpoints the student's location.

Because the readers are only set up within the schools, they can't track students outside the buildings. But anyone with a compatible reader could.

With these tags, the district hopes to increase student safety and attendance. Students will also be able to use the ID cards for transactions in the library, cafeteria and ticket office.

Instead of trying to guess where they might be, the school can punch in the students' random numbers to see their location. Staff members will literally find out what the students are doing in that location and bring them to class.

The district is investing $261,000 to install the readers, provide hardware and software, training, and the 4,200 IDs. Just with the 4,200 students in these schools, the district expects to see $2 million more in funding this year.

"The two schools that we have as pilots are leaving money in Austin, which should legitimately be coming to those schools to support their programs," said Pascual Gonzalez, spokesman for the district.

Other Texas districts, including Spring Independent School District in the Houston area, have seen significant increases in revenue by using this technology over the last five or six years, Gonzalez said. Along with increased revenue, the district decided to do this pilot for student safety and identification reasons.

District, privacy experts differ on RFID tags

But safety shouldn't trump privacy; there should be a balance between the two, said Khaliah Barnes, open government counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). This technology raises substantial privacy threats, including constant surveillance of students and violation of free speech and association.

Radio frequency identification tags will show when students use the restroom or go to a school nurse or psychologist. If their location could be tracked and released, students may be dissuaded from visiting a certain student group on campus.

By relying on these tags for security, school districts create different security risks. Tags can be cloned in seconds, they can be made unreadable by wrapping them with tinfoil, and they can be left on campus while a kidnapper has the student miles away already. And anyone with the right device can read the tags without the tag holder knowing about it.

EPIC outlined these threats in a position paper in August on radio frequency identification in schools, which it issued along with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN). The 22 endorsers and signers included the American Civil Liberties Union.

But the paper also included suggestions for schools that do choose to use them.

"Our position is that this technology should under no circumstances be used," Barnes said. "But we're aware that schools are doing it, so therefore it's alternatively — should schools decide to, and we're strongly against that — these are best practices that they should implement."

Suggested best practices include the following:

  • Students and parents should be able to choose whether they will wear the tags and consent in writing. They should also have an option to revoke their previous consent.
  • Students and parents should have access to the data that's collected about them to make sure it's accurate.
  • The readers and tags should be clearly identified with a visible warning sign. And schools should explain where the data will be stored and how it will be used.
The paper lists seven prohibited practices, including these three:

  • Tracking individuals without their "informed, express, written consent."
  • Schools should not require individuals to consent to the use of the technology in exchange for receiving an education or working at the school.
  • Tag readers should not be hidden.
Of the seven prohibited practices, Northside Independent School District's pilot employs most of them. The readers are hidden above the ceiling tiles with no signs. Students are required to wear the tags if they want to go to these two schools. And this is a mandatory initiative, not an opt-in program with written consent.

But the school district doesn't believe it's violating students' privacy by piloting this technology, nor does it agree with the Electronic Privacy Information Center's views.

"We would not be doing this if it was against the law; we would not be doing this if there was invasion of privacy," Gonzalez said. "We totally disagree with them."

Is RFID technology the mark of the beast?

In the Northside board of trustees meeting that decided the issue last school year, six people fought against the pilot. They included one parent and student who said this technology was akin to the mark of the beast mentioned in Revelation 13 in the Bible, which references a beast who marks its worshippers on their right hand or forehead.

But the beast hasn't appeared yet. And the radio frequency identification technology does not physically mark the students. Instead, it is a chip embedded in a student ID.

The other four people who spoke out against this technology at the meeting were out-of-towners from Dallas and Austin who either held to the mark of the beast argument or were from CASPIAN, which fights against government tracking.

"Those people are not of concern to us," Gonzalez said. "Our concern is that those parents of those 4,200 kids support this initiative, and they do." 

But not everyone in the San Antonio community supports it, according to more than 76 comments in a May article on mySA.

What's next

In summer 2013, the school district will evaluate how the pilot went. Did it help keep students in school? Did it save a child's life by identifying where a student was during an emergency? Did additional revenue come in? Did the technology make it easier to manage cafeteria, library and computer access?

Once the district answers these questions, it will decide whether to expand it to other secondary schools or to the elementary schools.

This story originally appeared on the Center for Digital Education website