Newest School RFID Scheme is Reminder of Technology’s Surveillance Potential

It’s funny how unpredictable the course of technology is. A few weeks ago it was reported that a Texas school district plans to implant RFID chips in student IDs, and use them to track the whereabouts of students. RFID chips, of course, are what make all kinds of contactless technologies work, from toll booth speed passes to contactless transit passes and entry keys. We have seen attemtps to use RFID’s in schools before and have opposed such efforts, not only because we don’t want to see this kind of intrusive surveillance infrastructure gain inroads into our culture, and because we should not be teaching our children to accept such an intrusive surveillance technology, but also because RFIDs are a generally insecure technology not appropriate for use with children.

During the first Bush Administration, a host of new technologies were on the horizon that appeared to pose serious potential threats to privacy. They included not only RFID chips but also face recognition, license plate scanners, drone aircraft, fMRI brain scanners, phone and GPS tracking, and maybe automobile black boxes. Some of these—such as drone aircraft—seemed at the time to be little more than sexy media topics. I’d get one or two press calls a year about them, and I’d talk about their implications, but they still seemed more science fiction than imminent privacy threat.

RFIDs did seem to be an imminent threat. Major retailers were engaged in a push to advance adoption of RFID technology, and many envisioned RFIDs eventually replacing UPC bar codes on products. That would mean that every item that we purchase would include a uniquely identifiable RFID tag, and it isn’t a big leap to imagine that this would create all kinds of incentives for collecting information by secretly and remotely reading tags. Concerns included the hidden placement of tags allowing for secret identification, hidden readers, individual tracking and profiling, and massive data aggregation. The government was also interested in RFIDs, and the Bush Administration pushed to have them placed in our passports (though we were able to force the government to adopt a protection called Basic Access Control) and in certain border crossing documents. It seemed that driver’s licenses might be next—the one document that nearly every American carries at all times. Allowing those unique identifiers to be remotely and secretly read at any time would be a true privacy nightmare.

But while other technologies such as domestic drones and license plate scanners have emerged as very present threats to our privacy, RFID chips so far haven’t panned out to be the problem we worried about. While use of RFIDs is prevalent at the supply chain level, retailers have not so far started replacing UPC bar codes with RFIDs. They have not made inroads into driver’s licenses—partly because the fierce battles the ACLU and others waged against RFID chips during the Bush years helped keep RFIDs too radioactive to include as part of Real ID or other efforts to modernize driver’s licenses.

Of course one thing you learn working on civil liberties is that no problem truly stays solved, no victory stays won, no vampire ever gets a stake through its heart. RFID chips have become an accepted part of daily life, and large numbers of Americans do carry them in various forms on their persons at all times. Although there is no sign of anyone building the kind of network of secret RFID readers that we worried about, this story in Texas is a reminder that despite the technology’s lack of security, chipping identity documents and using RFID’s to track people remains an attractive idea to those in authority. And of course, many technologies of control are imposed on prisoners, immigrants and children before anyone else.

The Texas story is also a reminder that the same unpredictability of technology (and its complex relationship with our institutions and our culture) means that a technology like RFIDs could lie dormant for years (from a privacy-invading point of view) only to bloom suddenly into a full-bore nightmare tracking scenario. Vigilance is the eternal price of liberty…

Update (July 3)

This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that the school district in question is in Texas not  New Mexico.

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Anonymous

Children already have a tracking device on them that is far more invasive than the passive RFID technology you mention - cell phones. Our US Government monitors the messages and locations of cell phones. GPS in the phones can provide location information down to 10 ft.

When I think about the events surrounding the columbine shooting, I feel the limited tracking (basically when the child enters or leaves an outfitted door) is a great idea. In fact, we should prepare our children for their future. Every major company in America already requires these tags for their employees entering and leaving their buildings. Shouldn't we use the technology, rather than spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Jay Stanley

Thanks for your comment. It's true that cell phones are being allowed to become tracking beacons in a way that Americans of previous generations would see as positively Soviet.We don't think cell phones should become 24/7 tracking beacons. And just because that is happening now, we shouldn't throw up our hands and just accept every use of technology for tracking people in other ways. There are good & bad uses of every technology, a lot depends on exactly how they are used; tracking arrival (and sometimes departure) from work buildings does not seem so bad to me considering people already check in & out one way or another at work.

Really? You ar...

Children and adults in schools are already being tracked by our US government via cell phones. Message are monitored, GPS can be used to help track you down to 10 ft.

When I think about the Columbine shooting, passive RFID is a great idea to track who is inside the building and who is outside. Or, who got on the bus or who didn't.

We should be preparing our children for the future, not scaring them. Every major corporation today (including public government agencies) require their employees to carry RFID id cards for accessing building.

This article doesn't face the reality of our society nor does it put passive RFID for id cards in context of why it being used and on who. Our children must do many things according to our government - like go to school. Therefore if children are mandated to do so, those governing bodies should be allowed to automate how they account for them. Once our children turn 17-18 they must have these cards to get into work.

Anonymous

Forgive me if I missed something, but I believe you've made a slight geographical error. The source article clearly states that Northside is in Bexar County, which is in Texas, near San Antonio, hence why source article is on the website of the San Antonio express.

Jay Stanley

You are right, thanks for pointing out my error. I have corrected it.

John Canning

Enhanced Drivers Licenses, required to cross the Canadian and Mexican borders without a passport, contain RFID chips. In Vermont, we provide people with a metallic envelope so that the RFID chips cannot be accessed without removing the license from the envelope.

Anonymous

They're going too far! If we don't stop them, then they could become very perverted.

Anonymous

I do not believe they have the right to require anyone to wear a chipped card. In this case do school employees wear the chips?

This is a violation of privacy

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