Should We Be Tracking Kids With RFID?

News that a school in California is using RFID to take attendance and record the meals that students eat has raised some interesting privacy questions.
Published: September 28, 2010

The issue of tracking school children with radio frequency identification came up again recently with news that California’s Contra Costa County School District is using radio frequency identification to take attendance and record which meals students choose. The initial Associated Press report had very little detail about the nature of the system, or about how it would be used (see California students get tracking devices), but that didn’t stop bloggers and privacy groups from raising concerns.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a group focused on issues related to technology and privacy, wrote: “An RFID chip allows for far more than that minimal record-keeping. Instead, it provides the potential for nearly constant monitoring of a child’s physical location. If readings are taken often enough, you could create an extraordinarily detailed portrait of a child’s school day—one that’s easy to imagine being misused, particularly as the chips substitute for direct adult monitoring and judgment. If RFID records show a child moving around a lot, could she be tagged as hyper-active? If he doesn’t move around a lot, could he get a reputation for laziness? How long will this data and the conclusions rightly or wrongly drawn from it be stored in these children’s school records? Can parents opt-out of this invasive tracking?” (See Reading, Writing, and RFID Chips: A Scary Back-to-School Future in California.)

These concerns strike me as a little overblown. I taught for a while when I was just out of college, and my wife is a teacher as well. You don’t need technology to determine who is hyperactive and who needs to exercise more. And I think these issues can easily be addressed by schools issuing guidelines outlining what data will be collected and how it will be used, as well as how to share that information with parents.

I also think there are some questions that the EFF failed to raise. Can the technology be used to improve children’s safety, for instance? Can it be utilized to reduce property damage, if that is a problem in a school? Can it be employed to improve administrators’ ability to respond to crises within a school? And can the system save enough money to enable a school to spend more on education?

I’ll provide some answers, starting with the last question. Mike Shiff, GM of RFID Recruiters, sent me a link to a CNN video indicating that the school expects to reduce the amount of time teachers spend taking attendance and tracking meal consumption by 3,000 hours (I assume this is per year). That means the school might save some money—but more important, teachers will have more time to teach. As a parent, I’m all for that.

Schools have also used RFID to improve safety. Teachers at Shorewood High School, near Milwaukee, are utilizing an RFID system called Help Alert. Staff members are issued RFID-enabled pendants worn on lanyards or carried in pockets, and can call for help merely by pressing a button on one of the devices. The system has been used in at least one emergency event, alerting the school’s assistant principal when a fight between two students erupted in a classroom, and enabling him to respond in time to break up the altercation (see Wisconsin High School Gets ‘Help Alert’).

Missouri’s Blue Springs School District has installed passive, 125 kHz RFID tags on 147 school buses, equipping drivers and mechanics with handheld RFID interrogators to read those tags. The Electronic Vehicle Inspection Report (EVIR) system is designed to help its transportation department ensure buses transporting more than 10,000 students daily run safely and smoothly (see District Puts RFID on Buses).

I think it is fair to say that there are several good reasons to use RFID to track school children. But I was struck by a New York Times editorial on the topic (see Keeping Track of the Kids) that was unusually balanced for an article about RFID. The editors wrote, “Concern that school officials would use the ID chips to keep tabs on children’s behavior—and tag them perhaps as hyperactive or excessively passive—seems overwrought.” But it also asks the question, “Though it may seem innocuous to attach a chip to our preschoolers’ clothes, do we really want to raise a generation of kids that are accustomed to being tracked, like cattle or warehouse inventory?”

This is a profound question. If we track all children with technology and they get used to it, do we open the possibility that they will accept government tracking of them as adults? I’d love to hear your opinion on this question.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or the Editor’s Note archive.