Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tracking Preschoolers With RFID Tags?

When I read the story today about a preschool in Richmond digitally tracking children using microchips embedded into their jersey tops I was immediately reminded of legislation I worked on a few years ago partially addressing this very issue. And of course, I also had that old "slippery slope" argument immediately come to mind when I picture all these chipped kids with digital markers tracking everywhere they go as some administrator watches.

The legislation I'm referring to (and an op-ed I had published about it) would have required any school seeking to chip their students to first ask the parents for permission. Seems like a straight forward, no brainer, right? Well, that's what we thought, until the Governor vetoed the legislation, even in the face of overwhelming support in the legislature and in the public.

Before I get into more reasons why I generally don't like the idea of chipping kids for tracking purposes, let's clarify what we're talking about. Essentially, the school is tagging the children's clothes with monitoring devices that transmit a signal to sensors installed throughout their buildings, ostensibly helping administrators secure the child's whereabouts at all times. Parents will also digitally sign the child in and out of school, thereby eliminating the need for attendance records filed by hand.

Okay, so maybe there are a few pro's to such monitoring. And at least in this case, unlike the situation I wrote about in my article, the parents are at least involved and aware. The question of course is whether the minor benefits associated with this monitoring outweigh the potential pitfalls associated with an ever expanding surveillance state.

Now let's first go back to that legislation the Governor vetoed and what I wrote at the time:

In 2005 a tiny school district in Northern California inadvertently ignited a statewide debate over the appropriate use of modern technologies in the school system. The technology in question was Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, which the district had embedded in student badges without parents' knowledge. The children were required to carry these tracking devices or suffer suspension.

Controversy erupted when parents discovered that the new badges - which function somewhat like a GPS system - exposed their children to stalking, tracking and identity theft. Worse, the children were “chipped” without parental notice or consent. The district had intended to use the technology to remotely monitor student movement on campus; even installing readers on the bathroom doors. Parents rightly objected, strongly, but it wasn’t until a media firestorm was ignited that the district backed down.

Had the district engaged parents in a conversation before installing the RFID-enhanced ID system the community’s sensitivities and concerns could perhaps have been adequately balanced with the districts goals of enhancing campus safety and improving attendance recording.

Unfortunately that’s not how it happened, but that’s how it should have happened.

Given the controversial nature of RFID technologies, and the inherent risks associated with it, school districts should be required to notify parents and get their consent BEFORE “chipping” their children.

Schools are already required to get parental permission for sex education, field trips, and in some cases, student cell-phone use on campus.

If the Sutter case illustrates nothing else, it’s that parents, not schools, should decide whether children must carry a tracking devise. Mechanical devices might be useful for tracking cattle, but when it comes to our children, RFID’s are no substitute for teacher and school staff responsibility.

Parental notification and consent would also provide an important check on district incentives to use invasive RFID-systems. Because schools receive funding based on attendance, a financial incentive exists to closely monitor student presence on campus. But there is a line that can be crossed – RFID monitors in the bathroom, for example – between sensible oversight and invasion of privacy.

Absent a countervailing force in defense of student privacy, the district’s natural tendency will be to secure its interests at the expense of the students’. Parents can only function as this countervailing force if they are granted their rightful seat at the table. Currently, no such right exists!

The Governor had an opportunity to rectify this injustice in the form of Senate Bill (SB) 29 by Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto). The legislation was specifically crafted as a response to the Sutter County incident and to ensure that in the future schools notify parents and get their consent before embedding students with RFID-enabled tracking devices.

This pragmatic measure – remarkably and painstakingly moderate so as to be in tune with the Governor’s general sensibilities - was supported by nearly every state legislator and organizations spanning the political spectrum from the ACLU to the Liberty Coalition to the Parents and Teachers Association to the Consumer Federation of California.

Nonetheless, the Governor vetoed the bill – and missed an important opportunity to ensure child safety, protect personal privacy, and defend the rights of California parents.

Now let's go to the story in California Watch about this Contra Costa situation:

Tracking microchips have become popular in recent years as the technology of choice for pet owners, prison guards and cattle wranglers. But the rapid social acceptance of such technology troubles some civil rights and privacy advocates.


Cedric Laurant, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said this about Brittan's microchip program in 2005:

Monitoring children with RFID tags is a very bad idea. It treats children like livestock or shipment pallets, thereby breaching their right to dignity and privacy they have as human beings. Any small gain in administrative efficiency and security is not worth the money spent and the privacy and dignity lost.

Click here to read more.

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?

I have to say, this all starts to sound 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.

As noted privacy expert Bruce Schneier recently stated:

“…lack of privacy shifts power from people to businesses or governments that control their information. If you give an individual privacy, he gets more power…laws protecting digital data that is routinely gathered about people are needed. The only lever that works is the legal lever...Privacy is a basic human need…The real choice then is liberty versus control.”

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