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

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 11 2012 3:50 PM

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.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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.

Advertisement

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.

Still, 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.

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.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.