Future Tense

Texas Schools Are Forcing Kids To Wear RFID Chips. Is That a Privacy Invasion?

Texas schools are increasingly using electronic RFID tags to monitor whether students are on campus.

Texas schools are increasingly using electronic RFID tags to monitor whether students are on campus.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Two San Antonio schools have joined others in Houston and Austin in requiring students to wear cards with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips embedded in them, allowing administrators to track their whereabouts on campus.

The scheme, reported last month by Wired’s Threat Level blog, is drawing fresh attention now that the school year has begun. Most students and parents have acquiesced to the tracking, accepting the schools’ explanation that it will make students safer and help administrators more accurately report attendance. Since many public schools are funded in part based on their average daily attendance, the RFID trackers can bring in thousands or even millions more for a large district by allowing them to count students who are on campus but not at the morning roll call. The tags can only be read from on campus, so students aren’t being tracked outside the building.

Still, a couple of students and parents have raised a fuss. Among them is a father named Steven Hernandez, who objects to the devices on Biblical grounds. He compares the RFID cards to the “mark of the beast” in the Book of Revelation, and his daughter has reportedly refused to wear them, despite the school’s offer to remove the chip from her card. Some outlets report that she has been banned from voting for Homecoming king and queen as punishment, but that’s not quite it. Pascual Gonzalez, communications director for the Northside Independent School District, told me that all students are required to present their ID in order to do various things on campus, including vote in student elections. The student in question declined to present hers.

The homecoming anecdote as served its purpose for opponents of the chips, who have so far been dismayed by the general lack of outrage over the schemes. Right-wing sites like Glenn Beck’s The Blaze and World Net Daily are now running with the story, joining privacy groups on the left such as the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (Funny, I haven’t seen the same outrage from the right about voter-ID laws for national elections.) The ACLU and EFF, among other liberal groups, have endorsed a position paper by a campaign called Chip Free Schools, which argues that RFID tracking of students carries “profound societal implications.” Among the concerns raised in its position paper:

• Dehumanizing uses. While there is an expectation of supervision and guidance in schools, monitoring the detailed behaviors of individuals can be demeaning. For example, RFID reading devices in school restrooms could monitor how long a student or teacher spends in a bathroom stall.

• Violation of free speech and association. … For example, students might avoid seeking counsel when they know their RFID tags will document their presence at locations like counselor and School Resource Officer (SRO) offices.

• Conditioning to tracking and monitoring. Young people learn about the world and prepare for their futures while in school. Tracking and monitoring them in their development may condition them to accept constant monitoring and tracking of their whereabouts and behaviors. This could usher in a society that accepts this kind of treatment as routine rather than an encroachment of privacy and civil liberties.

RFID tags for students

Screenshot / Northside Independent School District

The first two issues, and several of the others that privacy advocates have broached, amount to concerns that schools will abuse the information provided by the RFID tags. That’s possible, of course, but it’s going to be difficult to convince school administrators of that, since it amounts to saying that they and their personnel aren’t trustworthy.

The third concern, though, is interesting. The argument, in essence, is that the more privacy we’re forced to give up, the more we’re willing to give up. Is it true? Well, check out this snippet from a (generally quite positive) San Antonio Express-News story about the RFID program:

Northside’s decision generated alarm among national conservative media outlets, criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and a protest outside the middle school on the first day of classes in August.

But after a few weeks of carrying and using the ID cards, students at Jones shrug when asked about the uproar. Some have decorated their badges with stickers or dangle them from Hello Kitty lanyards.

Gonzalez, the school district’s communications director, maintains that students have never had an expectation of privacy on campus. “By virtue of the fact that you are a student at a school, there is no privacy. … It is our responsibility to know where every single one of those 3,000 students are while they are in our care during the school day.”

He has a point. A lot of things that would be rights violations if imposed on the population at large are perfectly acceptable in school settings. That said, it’s understandable that privacy groups are wary of policies that acculturate students to electronic surveillance. Considering that just two out of 4,200 students at the two schools involved in the San Antonio district’s RFID pilot program have complained, though, that ship may have sailed long ago.