RFID chips and schoolkids

Miguel took exception to my ISTE point/counterpoint article on using RFID chips to monitor schoolchildren in school. I knew my stance would be controversial when I wrote the piece, so I’ll take this opportunity to respond to Miguel’s criticisms. Here’s my thinking, using the Brittan Elementary (Sutter, CA) program as an example…

  1. There’s nothing on the RFID chips except a number. No demographic information. No address information. No personally-identifiable information whatsoever. Nothing except a unique ID number that’s meaningful only to the specialized school software that matches kids with attendance records (and, maybe later, lunch records). There’s a big difference between the information stored on the kids’ RFID cards and what was on the British passports. Anyone who stole the info from the kids’ RFID chips literally would get bupkis
  2. We already have to monitor the whereabouts of kids on school grounds at all times. There is no right of students to roam freely. As such, I’ll stick by my argument that using technology to do this instead of expensive human personnel is at least arguably defensible.
  3. Given #1 and #2, that’s why I said that RFID chips as used in Brittan Elementary are a non-issue. They’re no more invasive than student IDs (with or without bar codes) or biometric readers for school cafeterias or libraries. They’re arguably less invasive than networked security cameras, metal detectors, drug dog sniffs, or extracurricular students’ urine testing for illegal substances, all of which are commonplace.
  4. Finally, I’m wary of the slippery slope argument that Miguel use ("RFID chips … are a precedent for using technology in ways that violate our privacy"). If we decide to go down this path, wouldn’t we also be against Internet cookies, secure login databases for financial web sites, GPS in cars/cell phones, Internet form-filling software, toll booth passcards, biometric scanners, security cameras, and all of the other technologies I mention in my article? Why is RFID so different than these other technologies?

The students who take my school law courses would tell you that I’m actually a pretty strong privacy advocate. That said, I also recognize that, as technology-using individuals, we make choices every day to sacrifice privacy for convenience. That trend is only going to intensify as the benefits of divulging certain types of information outweigh whatever privacy concerns most folks have.

We need to be careful to protect students’ private information from theft and other improper uses. That said, I’m not sure that a meaningless number on a students’ RFID chip is the red flag that others make it out to be.

4 Responses to “RFID chips and schoolkids”

  1. Just hang around a customs area with a powerful microwave gun and kill all RFID passports. Once enough people are fried and no RFID passports actually work, using the paper itself might come back into style.

  2. I don’t know if RFID will make it cheaper to keep track of kids. I think that RFID tags will make it POSSIBLE to know where students are in the building. I work in a building with plenty of places to hide. Have you ever signed a pass and wondered if the student was really going where he said he was going?

  3. Slippery slope–or not–the fact remains that we are giving up much of our privacy. Although phones can be used as a way to track our movements, this freedom is exchanged for a benefit.

    Although RFID chips among students is not as bad as passport use, I am concerned that we are lowering the natural defenses Americans should naturally have in place. That grown-ups yield those freedoms up so easily speaks to the growing problem.

    How’s that for poorly reasoned?


  4. We ARE giving up our privacy, often quite willingly. On a number of fronts we also are giving up our children’s privacy, whether they want it given up or not. I imagine that you are right, Miguel, that in the end we may look back and wish we had done some things differently: I like your statement that “we are lowering the natural defenses Americans should naturally have in place.” This is yet another example of the rapid rate of technological change outpacing our ability to think critically, come to consensus, make policy, etc.

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