A Texas school district drew national attention, a lawsuit, and even cyberattacks by Anonymous hackers with a pilot program requiring students to wear RFID tracking chips around campus. Now, after winning the lawsuit, surviving the denial-of-service attacks, and weathering the backlash, it has decided to drop the chips after all. But that doesn’t mean the privacy advocates have won.
Northside Independent School District spokesman Pascual Gonzalez told me that the microchip-ID program turned out not to be worth the trouble. Its main goal was to increase attendance by allowing staff to locate students who were on campus but didn’t show up for roll call. That was supposed to lead to increased revenue. But attendance at the two schools in question—a middle school and a high school—barely budged in the year that the policy was in place. And school staff found themselves wasting a lot of time trying to physically track down the missing students based on their RFID locators.
Andrea Hernandez, the student whose family unsuccessfully sued the district on religious grounds and referred to the IDs as “the mark of the beast,” is reportedly thrilled by the decision. She had ended up transferring to another school to avoid the IDs.
But the backlash and the lawsuit weren’t the deciding factors, Gonzalez told me. “While [privacy groups] are extolling the fact that they won, the fact is that that was a very minor part of our conversation, because the federal court and the court of appeals both upheld Northside’s position on that. We were on solid ground.”
Indeed, the district never acknowledged that the chips posed legitimate privacy concerns, adhering all along to the reasoning that Gonzalez expressed to me when I first talked to him about this last fall: “By virtue of the fact that you are a student at school, there is no privacy.” No doubt other schools will echo that line when they adopt RFID or similar technologies in the years to come, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a high court rule on a similar case at some point in the future. Gonzalez is right that students on a campus have less expectation of privacy than adults, but “no privacy” seems a little extreme. The question of how much offline tracking is too much is also likely to arise in workplaces as employers use RFID tags to bust workers for, say, spending too much time in the bathroom.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez told me Northside plans to capture the safety and security benefits of RFID chips through other technological means. “We’re very confident we can still maintain a safe and secure school because of the 200 cameras that are installed at John Jay High School and the 100 that are installed at Jones Middle School. Plus we are upgrading those surveillance systems to high-definition and more sophisticated cameras. So there will be a surveillance-camera umbrella around both schools.”
Still, the Rutherford Institute, the civil liberties group that sued the district, is claiming a belated victory. Institute President John Whitehead said in a statement: “As Andrea Hernandez and her family showed, the best way to ensure that your government officials hear you is by never giving up, never backing down, and never remaining silent—even when things seem hopeless.”
Read Slate's previous coverage of the Texas RFID case: