Kids Tagged With RFID Chips?
The Creepy New Technology Schools Use to Track Everything Kids Do — And the Profit Motive Behind It
The digital tracking and surveillance of school-aged kids has been growing.
Much attention has been given to the phenomenon of corporate tracking of kids’ online activities, activities that violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The law, originally adopted in 1998, requires Web sites aimed at kids to get parental consent before gathering information about those users who are under 13 years. Many companies, including a Disney subsidiary, have violated it. Corporate marketing interests, most notably Facebook, are fighting proposed revisions to COPPA.
A second front in the tracking of young people has gotten far less attention. Schools across the country are adopting a variety of different tools to monitor students both in school and outside school. Among these tools are RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags embedded in school ID cards, GPS tracking software in computers, and even CCTV video camera systems. According to school authorities, these tools are being adopted not to simply increase security, but to prevent truancy, cut down on theft and even improve students’ eating habits.
The RFID tag system popularly known as “Tag and Track” is being sold to schools system across the country by a variety of vendors, including AIM Truancy Solutions, ID Card Group and DataCard.
In general, these systems consist of a school photo ID card affixed to a lanyard that is worn around the student’s neck. The ID has a RFID chip embedded in it. The tag includes a digit number assigned to each student. As a student enters the school or pass beneath a doorway equipped with an RFID reader, the tag ID is read, recorded and sent to a server in the school’s administrative office. The captured data not only provides an attendance list (sent to the teacher’s PDA), but tracks the student’s movement throughout the day.
Students and parents in San Antonio, TX, are up in arms over a decision by the Northside Independent School District to require students at two local schools to wear RFID-equipped nametags as part of the Student Locator Project. The two schools, John Jay High School and Anson Jones Middle School, plan to use the nametags to pinpoint student locations both at the school and outside its premises. In addition, students are required to use the microchip ID when checking out school library books, registering for classes and paying for school lunches.
Pascual Gonzalez, a school district spokesman, said, “We want to harness the power of technology to make schools safer, know where our students are all the time in a school, and increase revenues.” One student, Andrea Hernandez, said the badge “makes me uncomfortable. It’s an invasion of my privacy.”
Local San Antonio news media make clear that something other than school security is at stake. The local school district loses $175,000 a day because of late or absent students and RFID tracking provides a means to improveattendance reporting.
San Antonio is taking its cue from the Houston, TX, school district. It began using RFID chips to monitor students on 13 campuses in 2004. Houston’s Spring Independent School District gave 28,000 students RFID badges to record when they get on and off school buses. The police and school administrators provided the badges to ostensibly prevent truancy and child abductions. In 2010, the school reported, “RFID readers situated throughout each campus are used to identify where students are located in the building, which can be used to verify the student’s attendance for ADA funding and course credit purposes.” Student tracking has reportedly brought them hundreds of thousands of extra dollars.
In Austin, TX, some 1,700 students in eight high schools, with parent permission, are being outfitted with GPS devices to help cut truancy rates. According to local news reports, the program is being run by Dallas-based AIM Truancy Solutions that boasts that its system increases student attendance by around 12 percent.
The increasing use of student monitoring is not limited to Texas. The AIM Truancy Solutions’ GPS tracking program has been adopted in Baltimore, MD, and is now being tested by the Anaheim (CA) Union High School District.
In Anaheim, about 75 seventh- and eighth-graders from Dale and South Junior High Schools are taking part in the pilot program. Students with four or more unexcused absences have “volunteered” to carry a handheld GPS device. Participation in the program will enable the students to avoid being prosecuted and a potential stay in juvenile hall.
Each school day, the delinquent students get an automated “wake-up” phone call reminding them that they need to get to school on time. In addition, five times a day they are required to enter a code that tracks their locations: as they leave for school, when they arrive at school, at lunchtime, when they leave school and at 8pm. These students are also assigned an adult “coach” who calls them at least three times a week to see how they are doing and help them find effective ways to make sure they get to school.
Like San Antonio, Anaheim schools lose about $35 per day for each absent student. Local school officials believe the program can pay for itself as more students attend classes.
The Palos Heights School District in Illinois is attaching GPS locators to students’ backpacks in order to “locate kids in seconds” both in and out of school. The electronic reader registers date, time and location of kids. Administrators justify the tracking and surveillance of students outside of the classroom as for their safety.
A very different monitoring effort is underway on Long Island, NY, in an effort to fight obesity. Selected Bay Shore students designated overweight or obese are being equipped with a wristwatch-like devices that count heartbeats, detect motion and even track students’ sleeping habits. Similar programs are underway in schools in St. Louis, MO, and South Orange, NJ.
In 2010, the Contra Costa County School District received a $50,000 grant to put RFID tags into basketball jerseys that students are supposed to wear while at school. The bulk of the grant went toward setting up sensors around the school to read the tags and computer systems to actually monitor where each student is. The program tracks preschool children.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation warns “… an RFID chip allows for far more than that minimal record-keeping. Instead, it provides the potential for nearly constant monitoring of a child’s physical location.” The consequences of such tracking are serious: “If RFID records show a child moving around a lot, could she be tagged as hyperactive? If he doesn’t move around a lot, could he get a reputation for laziness?”
Not all student-tracking programs work out as planned. In 2005, the Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, CA, abandoned an experimental Tag and Track program. Like similar programs, this RFID tracking used mandatory ID badges to track children’s movements in and around the school. Promoted by a local vendor, InCom, the schools board pulled the plug after the EFF and ACLU raised concerns that the program breached children’s right to privacy.
In 2010, however, a far graver incident of illegal monitoring was revealed in Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion School District. Blake Robbins, a Harriton High School sophomore, reported that a school official confronted him for engaging in “improper behavior” at his home. As the story unraveled, it was revealed that the laptops the school issued to high-school students came equipped with special software that enabled school administrators to spy on students and even their families in their homes.
School administrators argued that the software was installed to find lost or stolen computers. More telling, they admitted that they never told students or their parents about the remote access feature.