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Texas Inventories Children

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Officials at Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, apparently view George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four as an instruction manual rather than a cautionary tale.

Over 6,000 students will be required to carry microchipped ID so that the district can track their movements in school and on school buses. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips will be embedded in student IDs. Doors within the two affected schools are presumably now fitted with sensors that track students as they move from class to class, from the cafeteria to the bathroom. The district’s administration is determined to increase student attendance.

The reason? The Texas legislature cut state education funds, and Northside lost $61.4 million in tax dollars last year. Local TV station KENS5 explains the connection between attendance and funding:

The district loses $175,000 a day in state funding because of tardy or absent kids.… The district bean-counters expect to gain more than $250,000 in attendance revenue from the state, and $1.2 million from Medicaid, because the district will be tracking special-needs kids, too.

The $15 replacement fee for lost cards will almost certainly be profitable as well, since children predictably lose things.

The RFID system is a tested revenue raiser, with two other Texas school districts enjoying hundreds of thousands of dollars in increased funding after tagging children. So Northside is willing to spend $525,065 in start-up costs and $136,005 a year for administration in order to keep children from escaping its grasp. If the technology trial is successful, the district will expand the program to all of its 112 schools.

Many parents object. Protests have been held at each of the schools, with Facebook pages and YouTube videos being used to organize the dissent.

Safety concerns

Parents express concern about their children’s privacy and safety. Originally designed to track inventory and animals, RFID technology allows information to be read from a distance by radio waves without the bearer’s knowledge. Since each chip contains a unique ID number, anyone who reads the chip will know the exact location of a specific child. Parents are quite reasonably concerned about the possibility of ill-intentioned people monitoring their children’s every movement. It is notoriously easy to “eavesdrop” on RFID transmissions.

In conjunction with the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the consumer privacy group Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) issued a report entitled “Position Paper on the Use of RFID in Schools” (August 21, 2012). The paper warns,

a student’s location could be monitored from a distance by a jealous girlfriend or boyfriend, stalker, or pedophile. Individuals run this tracking risk any place they carry or wear a school-issued RFID tagged item — even miles from the campus. (PDF)

Depending on the information being collected, a tagged individual may also run an increased risk of identity theft.

Ironically, proponents of chipping children argue for the safety benefits of doing so; in case of a fire, teachers would be able to locate every child. Proponents also counter the privacy concerns of parents, maintaining that the ID contains no personal information, such as a home address. They insist that most RFID systems can operate only over the distance of a few meters. As long as the ID is not worn elsewhere, the monitoring will be limited to school grounds. The operational range of RFID chips, however, depends on a variety of factors, with some chips being readable at 100 meters.

For example, if the ID were to contain an active tag with a battery as opposed to a passive tag (as it reportedly does) the range would be dramatically increased. Moreover, the technology is constantly improving.

Parents must rely on the official account of what information the ID contains and the official promises that no abuse of information will occur. Even if the current assurances are sincere, however, it is not possible to predict what next year’s school bureaucrats will decide to do. The RFID cards establish a framework for abuse.

Other objections to tagging children

The CASPIAN Paper raises a variety of other concerns about the RFID system, including the following:

  • It is dehumanizing to have a bureaucracy track the minutiae of your day down to the amount of time spent in a bathroom stall.
  • It infringes on the freedoms of speech and association, e.g., by discouraging students from seeking the services of a counselor.
  • It runs counter to the religious and other deeply held convictions of some students.
  • It has a high potential for abuse, e.g., through hidden sensors “in bathroom fixtures, floor tiles, woven into carpeting and floor mats,” etc.
  • It conditions students to the constant monitoring of their behavior and whereabouts so that they accept “this kind of treatment as routine rather than an encroachment of privacy and civil liberties.”

CASPIAN argued that schools should require “informed, express written consent from individuals who agree to participate,” as well as from their parents. The consent “should remain on record,” and a way to revoke the consent should be provided. But do schools legally need consent from children and parents?

The Constitution and school children

Many objections to the RFID system appeal to the constitutional liberties of the children involved. The constitutional provision most in question is the Fourth Amendment, which reads,

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

But are children “people” under the Fourth Amendment? The answer is mixed.

In the essay “The Fourth Amendment Rights of Children at Home: When Parental Authority Goes too Far” (William and Mary Law Review, vol. 53, 2011–2012) law professor Kristin Henning writes,

Notwithstanding the general consensus that children are entitled to the benefit of Fourth Amendment protections in juvenile proceedings, the Fourth Amendment rights of children have been modified in certain “special needs” contexts — most notably schools, where state officials are responsible for the care and safety of a large number of youth.

From random drug testing (Vernonia v. Acton, 1995) to “a principal’s search of a child’s purse” (New Jersey v. T.L.O., 1985), the United States Supreme Court has found that school children have a reduced expectation of privacy and can be searched without a warrant. Henning comments,

In balancing the privacy interests of the child and the needs of the teachers and administrators, the Court concluded that the substantial need for “swift and informal” discipline to maintain order on the school grounds justified imposition of a reasonableness standard and departure from the warrant and probable cause requirements.

In routine administrative matters, such as the taking of attendance, school children have virtually no constitutional rights and, therefore, no civil liberties.

Conclusion

The 2012 CASPIAN paper states, “The 2003 Position Statement on the Use of RFID on Consumer Products, endorsed by over 40 of the world’s leading privacy and civil liberties organizations, clearly established that RFID should never be used for tracking people.”

Less than a decade later, school districts are openly requiring children to be tagged. These are not convicted criminals being tracked, and they are not volunteers. They are children whose parents are given no voice in whether they become human inventory.

Public protest is the only effective brake on the tagging of children for government profit. In 2005, a similar RFID experiment occurred in a California elementary school. After parental protests, including a complaint filed with the American Civil Liberties Union, the school board dropped the program.

In Texas, it is not merely parents but also students who are challenging the RFID system. WorldNetDaily (August 31) reports,

Student Andrea Hernandez, with support from her father, has decided to challenge the district’s plan. The station reported she has decided to wear an older photo ID.… Protests have been launched in front of the schools, and local stations are reporting the controversy. [RFID expert Katherine Albrecht] said in a statement to supporters the issue now is before the school district, and protesters are awaiting the superintendent’s response. “We don’t give up or give in,” she said.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).