The Fine Line of Technology: How Texas Schools Are Tracking Students

The Fine Line of Technology: How Texas Schools Are Tracking Students

A Texas school district plans to track its students with scanner chips, raising privacy concerns as citizens continue to balk at mobile monitoring.

San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District is outfitting over 6,000 student ID cards with Radio Frequency Identification System, or RFID, microchips, hoping the effort will decrease truancy rates.

RFID chips transfer data between tags attached to objects, often for the purpose of tracking and identification. The chips have been employed to track anything from produce shipments to hotel property, but they’re increasingly used to keep tabs on people’s movements.

School officials say the Texas chips are readable only on school property and buses, and can help them monitor the student population more accurately. The district insists that students’ information will be kept private, but opponents aren’t so sure.

Why RFID?

Northside Independent is the third Texan school district to implement tracking measures, after the Spring and Santa Fe districts started using RFID chips several years ago. The two districts have since enjoyed hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue increases, since the government assistance depends on attendance rates, which the cards can track more accurately than current practices.

This lesson is not lost on San Antonio, which expects an additional $1.7 million in funding once its RFID program starts. The planned $15 card replacement fee may also prove profitable, as school children are apt to lose their IDs.

“We want to harness the power of technology to make schools safer, know where our students are all the time in a school, and increase revenues,” said district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez. “Parents expect that we always know where their children are, and this technology will help us do that.”

Despite Gonzalez’ reassurances, however, parents and civil liberties groups remain unconvinced that the monetary benefits of RFID technology outweigh its human cost.

“I would hope teachers can help motivate students to be in their seats instead of the district having to do this,” said parent Margaret Luna. “But I guess this is what happens when you don’t have enough money.”

Luna’s opinion recalls a similar uproar in Anaheim Union High School District, which implemented an experimental tracking program last year.

Chronically truant highschoolers had to input their location information into GPS devices so schools could log their whereabouts. The experiment succeeded in achieving higher attendance rates, but singled-out students and their families reported bitterness at the methods involved.

“This makes us seem like common criminals,” complained one anonymous parent.

RFID Dangers

Besides injuring students’ pride, RFID technology may expose them to more severe dangers like stalking and identity theft.

“While school officials and parents may be sold on these tags as a ‘cost-saving measure,’ we are concerned that the real price of insecure RFID technology is the privacy and safety of small children,” said the ACLU’s Nicole Ozer. “RFID has been billed as a ‘proven technology,’ but what’s actually been proven time and again since the ACLU first looked at this issue in 2005 is just how insecure RFID chips can be.”

Ozer cited numerous incidents of RFID contamination, like that experienced by researcher Mark Gasson from the University of Reading, whose implanted chip contracted a virus. The virus damaged his chip and then replicated itself onto other connected devices, altering Gasson’s entire experiment.

“If someone can get online access to your implant, it could be serious,” Gasson warned. “It is possible that you could create a virus that completely corrupts the device to the point where it does not work any more.”

With the security of RFID information anything but clear, it is possible to launch a similar virus on the chipped student ID cards, perhaps to shut them down or swipe children’s location information for stalking purposes.

Location stalking is becoming more prevalent with the rise of smartphones and services like Foursquare, suggesting school children are just as vulnerable to this danger as adults, and companies are responding to the concern.

Apple recently pulled the stalker app “Girls Around Me,” which pulled location data from social media sites into one app to determine the proximity of women to the user, following complaints that it left women vulnerable to sexual predators. This incident suggests someone could build a similar app using stolen information from school databases.

San Antonio’s plan to track students will likely leave them vulnerable to identity theft and predators, negating any monetary gains the district may win under this program. Technology may track school attendance more accurately, but in this case RFID may create more problems than it solves.

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