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Rhode Island Governor Vetoes Restrictions on RFID

Senate Bill 211 would have prohibited the technology's use to track the locations of students in the state's schools, while also limiting the way in which information from vehicle RFID programs, such as toll collection, is used.
By Claire Swedberg
In Rhode Island, concern over the tracking of students with RFID became more galvanized in winter 2008, following a proposed pilot of RFID technology at the Middletown School District, in January of that year. The school district launched the pilot of an RFID-GPS system to address concerns raised by parents after a bad snowstorm in December 2007. At that time, inclement weather had tied up traffic one afternoon and evening, leading school buses to deliver students to their homes many hours late. The concern raised at that time was that parents simply did not know if the bus had picked up their children, if the kids were still on the bus, and where the vehicle was.

The pilot project was intended to address that issue. For the pilot, about 80 Aquidneck Elementary School students were provided with passive RFID tags, to carry in their book bags. An RFID interrogator was installed on a single school bus to capture the tags' ID numbers as the students entered and left the vehicle. The goal was to eventually provide every bus with an RFID reader containing a GPS receiver, so that the system could identify the bus' location in real time. Parents or school officials would then be able to log onto a school Web site in order to determine whether and when a particular child had entered or exited a bus, and to view that vehicle's present location. The system was never deployed beyond the pilot stage, however, due to budgetary concerns.

That pilot raised both privacy and safety concerns, says Amy Vitale, Rhode Island ACLU's program coordinator. "This is not a failsafe technology," she explains, noting that individuals could purchase RFID readers online, and potentially use them to capture children's ID numbers and track them—for example, in the case of a predator stalking a child. What's more, she notes, the use of RFID might be a privacy concern, since it allows school districts to monitor the movements of individual children.

The use of RFID in a system like the one piloted (but not permanently deployed) by Middletown could also lead to a sense of complacency, Ciccone says. If the tag is in a student's book bag—if that child leaves the book bag behind on a bus, for example—parents and the school district would be misled regarding their assumption that the student were on the bus.

Despite lawmakers' attempts to address each of the governor's previous concerns, Ciccone argues that Carcieri vetoed the most recent bill without clearly stating his objection. The governor did not mention the issue of tracking data from vehicle toll collection at all, Ciccone notes, adding, "I wonder if he even read the entire bill."

Ciccone says he will meet with the ACLU before planning when or if the bill will be reintroduced. Carcieri's term as governor ends in January 2011. At that time, Vitale says, the legislature might have more success in reintroducing the bill.

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