Chipping children: paranoia or panacea?

The ACLU is opposing a pilot project in Rhode Island to track students as they enter and exit school buses. “Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, [called] the plan ‘a solution in search of a problem’ and saying the school district already should have procedures in place to track where its students are.” “There’s absolutely no need to be tagging children,” he said. “The program raises enormous privacy and safety concerns, he added.”

If my research is accurate, there have been at least four previous projects for tagging children in schools with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips in the United States:

  1. Enterprise Charter School, Buffalo, New York (2003) – badges on children, tagging library books, school cafeteria purchases, and visits to the school nurse;
  2. Spring Independent School District, Houston, Texas (2004) – school bus pass program that is still operational;
  3. Brittany Elementary School, Sutton, California (2005) – badges on children, due to public outcry this project was cancelled which lead to the Senate of the State of California debated banning RFID chips to identify people in the state; and
  4. Tucson Unified School District, Tucson, Arizona (2007?) – school bus pass program that may still be under discussion.

In the UK, two clothing manufacturers are sewing RFID tags into school uniforms for the express purpose of tracking students while they are in school. RFID tags sewn into clothing are not new, and neither are RFID badges in the work place. And, now RFID badges are being used in universities. The University of Chicago is revamping all their student id cards primarily to ensure secure building access. Another application of RFID technology is a label affixed to your cell phone at Slippery Rock University, north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which allows for payment processing.

The idea of chipping children is controversial. On one hand, privacy advocates warn of possible abuses and intrusions. On the other, security proponents promote increased safety. In between are administrators who want improved efficiency and convenience. No one is seriously considering implanting RFID chips into children yet. But, this is happening for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as being seriously considered by the British government for prisoners. And, the University of Washington has started a human experiment in the computer science building to assess the possibilities of RFID tracking. Several states have passed legislation prohibiting a person from being forced to accept RFID implants, which are approved by the FDA. (Image source.)

There is no doubt that RFID tags can be abused. With an RFID reader, a bad person can gather information about you surreptitiously. A bad person with a database can profile you, and even create an inventory of your belongings. But this potential exists today, even without ubiquitous RFID tags and readers. Bad people with cameras can gather information about you surreptitiously and create an inventory of your belongings. They do it to children, families and the elderly. The concern about RFID is that this can be done more efficiently. If you use membership cards and discount shopping cards, your purchases may already be tied to you in some database, somewhere, that at sometime in the future may be hacked by someone. To a certain degree, the anti-RFID movement promotes the fear that at some time your information will be stolen.

We should be aware that the school district personnel who are investigating this technology are trying to solve real problems. It’s important to keep track of library books. And, it’s even more important to know that students are entering and exiting the school buses at the proper times and locations. We live in a changing world and what we dismiss as paranoia today may become essential tomorrow. For example, there were no lockers in my elementary school. The first time I saw a locker was in junior high. While in high school, we moved to a small town and the lockers did not lock in that school (unless you brought your own lock from home). Given our changing world, I would be extremely surprised if this situation still exists in my alma mater.

I’m somewhat surprised that the ACLU has not opposed cell phones in schools. Who would have ever imagined that in the name of privacy and safety we would allow everyone to carry a camera to school and take a picture of anything there (e.g., students spitting in a teacher’s water bottle or a teacher filming the girls bathroom)? But that is precisely what has happened with cell phones. We can’t pry cell phones away from students. There is also great potential to abuse cell phones, as demonstrated with the FBI’s ability to remotely activate a cell phone’s microphone and use it to eavesdrop on nearby conversations. If cell phones are ever fitted with RFID tags, this entire debate could be over.

Mr. Brown from the ACLU is right. There are safety and security concerns with RFID devices. However, he doesn’t seem to understand those concerns. RFID chips can be hacked and the information from those chips can be transferred to other chips. As an example if the RFID card allows access to a secured area, a bad person may pilfer the electronic codes and in essence make a copy of the electronic key, as demonstrated by James Van Bokkelen. If the chips do not have proper electronic safeguards the information may be overwritten or used illegitimately.

While I have not directly addressed testing, there are implications for using RFID chips in testing which I will discuss the next time I write. But today, I just couldn’t resist this topic. In my opinion, we need to ignore the fear mongering and we need to use this technology wisely. RFID technology is not a panacea, but it can solve real problems.