Was a Texas Student Really Expelled for Refusing To Wear an RFID Chip?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 30 2012 8:20 PM

Was a Texas Student Really Expelled for Refusing To Wear an RFID Chip?

RFID Chip
An illustration shows the ID cards that John Jay High School students are required to wear. They include embedded RFID chips that can pinpoint the student's location on campus.

Northside Independent School District

The Texas school district that began requiring its students to wear RFID tracking chips this year is now facing a fight in federal court. A sophomore, Andrea Hernandez, has refused to wear the ID tag on biblical grounds, comparing it to “the mark of the beast.” On Friday, attorneys for the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group, announced that they’re filing suit in federal court to keep Hernandez from being expelled.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

The case has set privacy activists ablaze, and hackers claiming affiliation with Anonymous joined the fight on the weekend of Nov. 24, targeting the school district’s website with a denial-of-service attack.

Advertisement

But those demonizing the district have ignored one key fact that could keep the case from being the big test of religious freedom, student privacy, and government surveillance that some media reports are making it out to be. The school isn’t actually expelling—or suspending, as some outlets have it—Hernandez for refusing to wear the electronic tracking chip. District officials have repeatedly offered to let Hernandez come to school wearing an identification card from which the RFID chip and battery have been removed.

“We have to respect their religious beliefs,” district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez told me in a phone interview. “So we said, ‘All right, if this is objectionable to you because it violates your religious beliefs, then we will not put the RFID technology in the card. But you still have to wear the ID card like every other student at school.’ Daddy said no, and the student said no.” Gonzalez denied a report that the compromise came on the condition that Hernandez agree to stop criticizing the program and publicly support it. “That’s just untrue,” he said.

The really interesting question, which I discussed in a previous post, is whether the school’s RFID tracking program violates students’ privacy. But that might be a tough case to make in court, given that we’re talking about minors on school grounds. And the school’s compromise offer also takes the steam out of claims that it has punished or harassed Hernandez because of her refusal to be tracked. The school’s students use the ID chips to check in at the front door, buy lunch, and vote for the Homecoming king and queen, but Gonzalez said Hernandez could do all the same things with the chip removed. “We were very explicit with her and her family that all of the access and services that she would have gotten with RFID would still be available via this non-RFID card,” Gonzalez told me.

By framing her objections primarily in terms of religious liberty, Hernandez has won from the school a concession that renders the privacy issue moot. So her lawyers at the Rutherford Institute have to make the case that an even ID badge with no tracking capabilities runs counter to her Christian principles, as they claimed in the motion they filed in federal court Friday.

Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead told me that, according to the Hernandez family’s beliefs, “any kind of identifying badge from the government is the mark of the beast, which means that you pay allegiance to a false God.” Adding that many Muslims and Jews hold similar beliefs, Whitehead predicted, “This is going to be a problem across the country.”

No doubt Whitehead is right that we’re likely to see more battles over RFID in schools in the years to come. But in the broader national debate over technologies that make government surveillance easier and more pervasive than ever, the religious-freedom issue is a red herring. These tags aren't the mark of the beast—they're the mark of a society grappling with troubling tradeoffs between convenience, security, and privacy.

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

TODAY IN SLATE

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

Moneybox

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.

Music

A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Music
Sept. 14 2014 11:44 PM A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?