Blog of Rights

Privacy and Safety Questions Loom Over Federal Program

By Nicole Ozer, Technology & Civil Liberties Policy Director, ACLU of Northern California at 1:45pm

The ACLU of Northern California (ACLU-NC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are calling for answers to critical privacy and safety questions that loom over a controversial federal program to track preschoolers with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips at George Miller III Head Start program in Richmond, California.

In an open letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services Department, ACLU-NC and EFF are asking officials to disclose what technical and security measures are used by the system to safeguard the privacy and safety of preschoolers, as well as what data is collected, how long it is retained, and who has access to the information. The letter also calls on officials to publicly address why and how the government decided to track Head Start students, and if the government plans to expand such tracking.

"This program allows for far more invasive surveillance than is required for attendance and other record-keeping for a Head Start program," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Lee Tien. "We want to know how and when privacy and security issues were considered in the development of this program, and how many other schools will be pressured to implement this system."

ACLU-NC and EFF are calling on officials to ensure that there is a process in place to protect the privacy and safety of schoolchildren, to make sure parents are fully informed about the privacy and safety risks of RFID technology, and to provide for an opt-out program for concerned parents.

Concerns about RFID privacy and safety in California schools came up just five years ago, when an elementary school in Sutter, California, attempted a similar program. The plans were scuttled when parents realized the risk to their children. In response, California lawmakers in 2007 overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring that any RFID program in schools include education campaigns for parents and be completely voluntary. While Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not sign the bill into law, it's clear that there is widespread concern about this technology.

“Public schools should not be chipping students now and asking questions about privacy and safety later,” said Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director at the ACLU of Northern California. “Parents should not have to pay for Head Start with the privacy and safety of their preschoolers. It’s time for some answers about why federal stimulus funds are paying for expensive, intrusive, and potentially insecure school tracking programs.”

The RFID program was launched this school year at the school with funds from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

(Originally posted on the ACLU of Northern California's Bytes and Pieces blog.)
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