Thursday, September 9, 2010

More On "Chipping" (RFID) School Children

I wanted to follow up just a bit on my last post (see below) about a preschool in Richmond digitally tracking children using microchips embedded into their jersey tops. As I wrote last Friday, the question for me comes down to whether the minor benefits associated with this monitoring outweigh the myriad of potential pitfalls associated with an ever expanding surveillance state.

My answer to this question of course was "no", its not a worthwhile trade off. The focus of my concerns in that last post was on the larger deleterious effect, I believe, constant, ubiquitous monitoring has on human consciousness itself, and worse, how it functions to stifle dissent in an ostensibly "free" society.

Now, before I get to some additional problems with chipping kids enumerated by my friend at the ACLU, Nicole Ozer, let me restate my conclusion from last week. I wrote:

"This issue is far from over. The rapid evolution of RFID technology and its uses makes it essential that we draw common sense lines now. Whether its video cameras on every street corner, RFID tags in our clothes and cars, or government wiretapping and corporate surveillance, or social networking sites like Facebook, or Smart Grid metering and in home monitoring technologies, or just about anything created by Google, the trend line is all too clear.

More concerning than any single threat posed by any single technology – including chipping children – is this larger pattern indicating that privacy as both a right and an idea is under siege.

As young people grow up with so much of their information so public and accessible to all, including government, and nearly every action they take is in some way being recorded and/or monitored, I fear their sense, appreciation and understanding of privacy will continue to fade away.

The consequences of such a loss would be profound. Yes, there are lots of more tangible, and immediate threats associated with the loss of privacy, from identity theft to intimidation to stalking. But, what concerns me most about the trajectory we're on is how does the knowledge that EVERYTHING you do is being watched and recorded effect human consciousness? Could we actually be stifling young peoples' creativity, their courage to dissent, and perhaps even their individuality, if they're conditioned at such a young age to accept being monitored and watched at all times?

Specifically, how does a lifetime of being constantly surveilled effect human behavior? Could it lessen peoples courage to stand up to authority (a prerequisite for a functioning democracy)? Is this all just another way to steadily stifle, and even eliminate dissent - dissent that is needed now more than ever?

But let me now transition to some more specific privacy threats these RFID chips pose to the children themselves. Remember, these chips function somewhat like a GPS system - and thus expose these children to stalking, tracking and identity theft.

Here's some of what the ACLU'S Nicole Ozer had to say:

While school officials and parents may have been 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. RFID has been billed as a "proven technology," but what’s actually been proven time and again (PDF) since the ACLU first looked at this issue in 2005 is just how insecure RFID chips can be:

* RFID chips in US passport cards were cracked and copied from a distance of 30-feet using $250 in parts bought from eBay (2009).
* RFID chips used in building access cards across the country were cracked and copied with a handheld device the size of a standard cell phone that was built using spare parts costing $20 (2007).
* California State Capitol RFID-based identification cards were cracked and copied and access was gained to member-only, secure entrances (2006).
* RFID chips implanted in humans were cracked and copied (PDF) (2006).
* The RFID chips used in the Dutch and British e-passport were cracked (PDF) (2006).

Without real security, RFID chips could actually make preschoolers more vulnerable to tracking, stalking, and kidnapping. Someone who wants to do children harm could potentially sit in a car across the street and scan the children’s jerseys without teachers, school officials, parents, or children ever knowing that any information has been read. And if this information can be read, it can be copied easily to a duplicate chip. A child could be taken off campus while the duplicate chip continues to tell RFID readers that the child is safely at school.


If the price for parents going to Head Start is that your kids are tracked and potentially made unsafe, that's not acceptable. These chips are really high powered. They can be read up to 100 meters away which means someone could pick up the signal from across the street from the center. So rather than make the kids safer they may be making them more vulnerable.

These are just the tip of the security issues—and we haven’t even touched on the core privacy concerns. The editors of Scientific American said it well back in May 2005: "Tagging … kids becomes a form of indoctrination into an emerging surveillance society that young minds should be learning to question."

At this point, we have far more questions than answers about the RFID system in use in Richmond:

What security measures are in place on the RFID chips?
* How will data collected from the chips be used? How long will it be kept?
* Were parents given a choice whether or not to have their child "chipped?"
* Were parents told how RFID technology works, what the privacy and security risks are, and what the school has done to make sure the chips are secure and compliant with student privacy laws?
* And did the County consider these questions before they received a federal grant for this program?

You can read the rest of her blog here.

To once again reiterate what I said last week, these kinds of mechanical devices might be useful for tracking cattle, but when it comes to children, RFID’s are no substitute for teacher and school staff responsibility.

And I would add, again, that in addition to these chips exposing to children to stalking, tracking and identity theft, it all strikes me as feeling a bit too much like Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World. It's not that I'm that frightened about how this surveillance will be used against people, though that's a real concern too, but more so, I fear how this loss of privacy and freedom negatively effects consciousness - creating a more docile, servile populace.

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