Today in the department of bad ideas, we have a pair of San Antonio schools that’s decided to tag its students with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips so that they can track their every move on campus. Starting this fall, the Northside Independent School District will be issuing RFID-equipped identification cards that the kids have to wear on lanyards any time they’re on campus. And then, in some corner of the principal’s office, the students show up as moving dots on a map of the screen like some real life game of Pac Man. This is the same way they keep track of cattle in Texas, by the way.
At first glance, this seems like a pretty unusual addition to the American high school experience. Do teachers and administrators really need to know where their students are at any given moment? Well, this isn’t just a way to keep kids from smoking pot under the bleachers or sneaking off to 7 Eleven for taquitos and Big Gulps. It’s actually a pretty clever way to secure more funding from the state. Because budgets are tied to average daily attendance, schools lose cash — as much as $175,000 a day — if students aren’t in their seats when homerooms do roll call in the morning. However, if the student is on campus, they’re technically present. So instead of chasing down the stragglers, teachers at John Jay High School and Anson Jones Middle School in San Antonio can just tap into their handy RFID-powered database (powered by AT&T).
This is all well and good until you start to think about the privacy implications. On a very basic level, the idea of tracking teenagers with microchips sounds pretty unnerving and invasive. There are 24 privacy rights and civil liberties groups that think so, at least. In a position paper on the issue the groups called the practice of tracking students with RFID devices “dehumanizing,” a “violation of conscience” and a “violation of free speech,” among other things.
"We don't think kids in schools should be treated like cattle," Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Wired. "We generally don't like it. My take on RFID is it's fine for products, but not so much for people. That's one of the places where the lines need to be drawn."
There’s also the fear of this technology getting into the wrong hands. What would pedophiles do with a massive, interactive database of every students’ location? How about hackers who might want to clone the cards or hijack the servers? The administrators have taken some precautions, though. The chips are associated with a random serial number for every student, not their real ID. Furthermore, the tracking only happens on campus so once students leave, they’re free again. Plus, tracking students like this is super lucrative!
The San Antonio Independent School District isn’t the first to use RFID technology on its students, and it probably won’t be the last. For those who agree with privacy rights groups that the practice is totally overboard, just think: it could be worse. At least, they’re not following the kids home like a school district near Philadelphia that snapped photos of students every 15 seconds using the webcam on school-issued laptops. One student was even disciplines for “improper behavior in his home.” Now that’s tracking done right.