Privacy's last stand is taking place not far from The Alamo in Texas right now, to hear some people tell it. Two schools in San Antonio have begun tracking students using radio-enabled computer chips embedded in their ID cards, allowing administrators to know the precise whereabouts of their charges on campus -- be it in class, in the bathroom, in a stairwell or AWOL -- all while sitting at a computer.
The stated purpose of the so-called RFID ID cards is simple: Because state aid is based on attendance, and the chips help schools count kids, tracking equals funding. The district also says the technology makes kids safer.
But at the intersection of technology, parenting, schools and privacy rights, things frequently get messy. Are schools merely modernizing, or are they teaching children to silently accept a Big Brother state? Should parents be happy that teachers can more easily keep tabs on their kids, or should they worry that vast databases of detailed location information might one day harm the children?
Technology with potential privacy implications is shoehorning its way into schools around the country, creating thorny issues at every turn.
Before San Antonio's implementation, Houston ran a trial in 2010 and found the RFID ID cards did in fact help boost attendance figures. RFID tracking has also been tried in California, where one preschool embeds chips in kids' clothes. Biometrics -- usually fingerprints -- have been used by some schools. In Carroll Country, Md., some kids now flash their palms instead of cash to pay for food. And the Daily Princetonian earlier this month revealed that new keyless locks opened by ID cards installed in dorm rooms feed a central database that records each time students enter buildings and rooms. University officials responded to the story the way every school does -- and nearly every data collection authority does -- by saying officials don't monitor the data but they reserve the right to access it in an emergency.
Children desensitized to being watched?
The definition of an emergency can be dicey, however, and that logic has already led to some celebrated privacy and technology lawsuits. Several districts around the nation have run into trouble for demanding students' social media passwords or asking to rummage through kids' cellphones without a warrant.
A few parents in San Antonio are putting up a stink about the RFID cards, arguing that schools shouldn't be a playground for new privacy-invading technologies. A group calling itself "Chip Free Schools" has tried to organize opposition. Another parent is objecting on religious grounds.
Chip Free Schools has received support from a larger privacy advocacy group -- Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, or CASPIAN, which was formed more than 10 years ago to protest the proliferation of supermarket loyalty cards.
"RFID is used to track factory inventory and monitor farm animals," said Dr. Katherine Albrecht, director of CASPIAN. "Schools, of all places, should be teaching children how to participate in a free democratic society, not conditioning them to be tracked like cattle."
Of course, the fight against loyalty cards didn't get very far, and privacy concerns may take a back seat as schools are tempted by new technologies that help them manage their districts, warns Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberty Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
It's often hard to see the long-term privacy issues created by technology through the fog created by short-term gains, he warned. Location tracking can have a chilling effect on casual congregating, for example -- kids who consider forming a club may skip the idea once they are aware that administrators will know about every meeting.
"The consequences of tracking are that as people become more aware they are being tracked, they become less free," he said.
There's also concern that students who learn to accept tracking as teen-agers will enter adulthood desensitized to being watched by government agencies.
"Schools shape children not just by what they tell them, but also what we demonstrate to them," he said. "We don't want to see the next generation of citizens growing up thinking about this kind of invisible eye in the sky."
'Prisoners in their own schools'
There are also several practical problems with tracking students and collecting data on them, Stanley warned. The practice can provide a false sense of security, for example, as kids might find a way to separate themselves from their RFID chips ("As a parent, I would wonder, do they know where your kid is, or do they know where your kid's chip is?" Stanley said). While the data might be collected for one use -- paying for lunch -- there might be mission creep. One day, it could be used as part of an adjudication procedure to find witnesses to a fight, for example. Long term, perhaps it will end up in the hands of political operatives, forcing a future presidential candidate to explain why he missed so many history classes. There's some concern -- theoretical at this point -- that the radio signal sent by the chip or the data collected could be stolen by others who might harm children. And there are worries about the cost.
"You should ask, 'Is this just a gimmicky solution to a problem that's been solved already, like using lunch money,' and the funds might be better spent on education?' " he said.
Katie Deolloz, who is helping coordinating RFID ID card opposition for CASPIAN, argued that the switch to an RFID card was really motivated by money.
"Students deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not forced to wear microchips that track them like cattle," she said. "(The district) has spent upward of $500,000 solving a non-problem. Relying on RFID to track and monitor students during the school day shifts the burden of responsibility away from the administrators and teachers. (The district) needs to be in the business of educating children, not treating them like prisoners in their own schools."
Stanley concedes that parents confronted with tracking technology at schools might have a very different reaction than privacy advocates. Many already pay cellphone providers so they can use mobile GPS tracking tools to keep tabs on their children. Parents also tend to keep kids much closer at hand then they did a generation ago, when it was common for kids to spend entire days biking around the neighborhood unsupervised. When concerns about school tracking are raised, they sometimes respond with a simple shrug.
Meanwhile, school officials point out that students have reduced civil rights when on campus. According to school spokesman Pascual Gonzalez, the kids have no right to privacy at school.
"During the school day, when they are within our four walls, we've got to know where those kids are," he said. "We reject the argument (that their privacy is being invaded). People saying that are not charged with the safety of children."
He dismissed the idea that the cards represent a tracking device, calling it instead a "locator."
"There is nobody sitting at a bank of monitors looking at a bunch of dots on a computer screen," he said. "We only go and look for a student when we have reason to.|
Implementation of the RFID pilot program -- which involves 4,200 students at two of the district's 112 schools -- has gone on without a hitch, he said.
So far, it appears parents are buying the district's argument. Gonzalez says only two district families are opposing the cards. If those students continue to refuse to wear the cards, they are subject to being kicked out of school, he said.
Stanley said he's not surprised at the lack of protest from parents. Many have become much more comfortable with the technology, and there is an apparent lack of consequences stemming from its use. There are no tales of sexual predators hacking databases of kids' fingerprints, no evil school principals who've posted detailed charts of kids' whereabouts on their Facebook page. So when the cost-benefit analysis is presented, it's hard to spell out that cost.
"With privacy, the issue is almost like the environment. We have to ask what kind of society we want to create long term," he said. "These things do have a very real effect on our freedom, but it's very gradual and often very subtle."
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