January 7, 2008 12:00 am

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Claiming that the program raises “enormous privacy and safety concerns,” the RI ACLU has called on Middletown school officials to halt a planned pilot program in which elementary school children will be tagged with electronic chips to monitor their whereabouts. The program, using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, will track the movements of Aquidneck Elementary School students who take school district buses by placing RFID chips on the children’s backpacks.

The only rationale offered for this significant intrusion is to allow school officials to know whether students boarded the right bus. But in a letter to school officials, the ACLU said it hoped that “this is a goal that school district procedures already address without the need to tag and track students like cattle. The use of RFID labels on the children is a solution in search of a problem.”

The letter added that this incursion on students’ privacy “could also have the effect of actually making the children less, rather than more, safe. That is because any information stored on an RFID chip that identifies a particular child, whether it be by name, address or school ID number, can potentially be read from a distance by inexpensive readers that can be easily purchased on the Internet. If school officials can find schoolchildren, others might also be able to find them and target them for improper purposes.” The letter notes that RFID technology was originally developed to track products and cattle, and that many independent researchers who specialize in RFID technology have raised privacy and security concerns about using this technology for tagging humans.

The ACLU also protested that requiring students to wear RFID labels “treats them as objects, not children,” like the cattle, sheep and shipment pallets in warehouses for which the technology was designed. Further, “encouraging the placement of RFIDs on young children, even in this limited and questionable context, can only have the unintended effect of acclimating them to being monitored by the government in other contexts and wherever they go, as if it were perfectly normal and appropriate. It is not, nor is it a notion that a school district should be encouraging, however unintentionally.”

The ACLU argued that the school district had failed to give sufficient weight to these concerns in adopting the policy with little debate. When a similar, but even less intrusive, program was introduced a few years ago in a California school system – requiring students to wear RFID badges while they were actually in school – an outcry from parents led to its quick abandonment. The ACLU concluded its letter to the school officials by urging them “to respect the privacy and civil liberties of Middletown’s elementary school students and reconsider this decision before the program is implemented on these children.”

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