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

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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June 29, 2012

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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