Tag! You're It!
Requiring students to wear RFID-enabled badges can easeadministrative tasks and tighten security, but some parentsand advocacy groups think it insults children’s dignity—andmay threaten their safety.
BRITTAN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL in Sutter, CA,had the best intentions when it implemented a radio frequencyidentification (RFID) program nearly three years ago.More efficient attendance-keeping and better security werethe promise of InClass, a software program from InCom.
The system creates unique 15-digit ID numbers that are written on individual tags and associated with the name of the student to whom each tag is issued. At Brittan, the tags were included with the badges that students were required to wear around their necks, which provided the student’s name, grade, and picture. As they passed by scanners mounted above the doorways of seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms and the cafeteria bathroom, their ID numbers would be read, recorded, and sent to a central server. The system would collect the tag data, convert the numbers into names, upload a list of present, absent, and tardy students to teachers’ PDAs. Teachers could then check their attendance lists to reconcile what the lists said with what they saw in their classrooms. Once confirmed, the lists were submitted wirelessly via the PDAs to school administrators, who were required to file attendance records with the state board of education.
Well meaning as the effort may have been, parents were outraged to find out that RFID technology was being used to allow the school to monitor the whereabouts of their children on campus. A group of them lodged a formal complaint with the board; subsequently, the project was halted. And so ended the latest skirmish in the war between security and privacy concerns that is escalating as technological advances open up all sorts of new possibilities for school districts, both for better and, if misused, for worse.
RFID, which consists of an identification tag that is stuck on or incorporated into a product, animal, or person for the purpose of identification using radio waves, had its early uses in industry, tracking goods from supply to delivery in order to improve supply-chain management. But it wasn’t long before other applications were being suggested.
The technology can be used in just about any circumstance where a unique ID system is needed. The most common method of identification is to store a serial number that identifies a person or object, and perhaps other information— from something simple like a pet owner’s address to complex instructions on how to assemble a car—on a microchip that is attached to an antenna. The antenna enables the chip to transmit the identification information to a reader. The reader converts the radio waves reflected back from the RFID tag into digital information that can then be utilized in computer programs.
Many people today carry RFID cards, perhaps without even realizing it. Contact-less access badges that allow secure entry to office buildings are one example. In September 2008, London’s Heathrow Airport will become the largest airport in Europe to test RFID-based tags for tracking passenger luggage.
How Safe Is It?
While many agree that the ease of use and convenience of the technology make it useful for applications such as tracking luggage, the application of RFID in schools has not been an easy sell. The idea of constant monitoring is what draws the main opposition, but another issue is that the technology may in fact compromise student safety rather than protect it, because of the lack of access control over the data collected. RFID tags, ID cards, and badges function as data transmitters, receivers, storage devices, or access keys, and can collect data about students such as meal purchases, library book checkouts, campus and classroom entrance/exits, etc. They feed that data automatically into a program accessible to school administrators and teachers. There is the potential for the information to be stored and retrieved for uses other than those originally intended.
POINT: “Before, everything was donemanually. Each teacher wouldtake attendance and send it to theoffice. Now it’s done automatically,and it saves us a lot of time.”—Gary Stillman, Enterprise Charter School
Moreover, anyone with a cheap card reader who gets near a student wearing an RFID tracking device may have the capability to read the contents of the card. That same person could also use a card reader in combination with GPS technology to track the student’s movements, potentially putting the student in greater danger.
“The question becomes whether the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks, and in this case they don’t,” says Rebecca Jeschke, spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that works to protect what it calls digital rights. “There are other ways to track attendance or make sure kids are keeping to the correct areas of the school that don’t pose the risks this does.”
Some privacy advocates even go so far as to argue that schools that install RFID systems under the guise of improving safety are simply using that goal as a cover, in order to install systems that will ultimately improve their ability to collect, store, and share information.
COUNTERPOINT: “There are other ways to trackattendance or make sure kids arekeeping to the correct areas ofthe school that don’t pose therisks this does.” -Rebecca Jeschke, Electronic Frontier Foundation
The safety vs. privacy argument aside, RFID attracts its most strident opposition for what some see as an affront to student dignity. In response to the Brittan Elementary School episode, Cédric Laurant, policy counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center), denounced the use of RFID tags in schools. “It treats children like livestock or shipment pallets,” he said. “Any small gain in administrative efficiency and security is not worth the money spent and the privacy and dignity lost.”
Yet plenty of administrators disagree. Gary Stillman, the director of Enterprise Charter School, a K-8 institution in Buffalo, NY, believes RFID tags have made a positive difference at his inner-city school. There, students use RFID cards at a kiosk reader to record their attendance. The school has several more administrative uses in store for the technology, including to monitor cafeteria purchases, library loans, and students’ health and disciplinary records.
“Before, everything was done manually,” says Stillman. “Each teacher would take attendance and send it to the office. Now it’s done automatically, and it saves us a lot of time.”
The technology continues to interest many schools around the country, particularly for its safety-related applications. In Texas, RFID tracking and GPS technology are being used by the Spring Independent School District to watch over 16,000 elementary school students as they get on and off school buses. The students carry RFID-equipped cards; the data is collected, and the routes or locations of buses can be viewed on a map—which can be very helpful in the event of an investigation of a missing child.
A similar system is in place at Pinellas County Schools, on Florida’s west coast. Students who ride the school buses have had their fingerprints encrypted into a binary number linked to each school ID number. Buses are equipped with digital fingerprint scanners, communications equipment, software, and GPS satellite locators. The combination of these technologies allows routes, locations, and student entrances on and exits off the school buses to be viewed on a map if needed.
So the argument ultimately may not be one of all or nothing, but rather of appropriateness and degree: When and where is the technology best used, and how much RFID is too much? So far, privacy advocates appear to have the upper hand. Since the incident at Brittan Elementary School, no other California school has attempted a similar policy. Last April, with memories of the failed system still fresh, legislation was approved prohibiting public schools in California from requiring the implementation of radio-wave devices that broadcast students’ personal identification and monitor their movement around campus.
Justine Brown is based in Cool, CA, and specializes in writingabout technology, education, and government.
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.