Unless the school board changes its mind, public school students at Jay High School and Jones Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, will be required to wear ID badges containing RFID chips (radio tracking beacons broadcasting unique ID numbers) when they come back to school next week.
Each of these schools has installed an array of “100 or more” RFID readers so that students’ movements can be tracked whenever and wherever they are on school premises. [Update: Interviewed on the Katherine Albrecht radio show, the president of the company supplying the equipment says that the chips have a read range of 70 feet, and that there are readers at least every 100 feet in the schools as well as in school buses.] To make sure students actually carry their RFID badges, they’ll have to use them for all purchases of school lunches as well as for mandatory attendance checks.
This will be one of the first times that anyone in the U.S. who isn’t a prisoner or a government employee or contractor has been compelled by any government agency to carry an RFID chip.
Tonight the elected Board of Trustees of San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District is hearing from students, parents, and other community members opposed to the RFID tracking scheme.
At the same time, a coalition of privacy and civil liberties organizations and experts including the Identity Project has issued a Position Paper on the Use of RFID in Schools calling for a moratorium on the use of the RFID chips for tracking of people. The position paper thus reiterates a point made by many of the same signatories in a 2003 Position Statement on the Use of RFID on Consumer Products. “RFID must not be used to track individuals absent informed and written consent of the data subject,” according to the 2003 statement.
Compulsory tracking by a government agency (a public school district) of the movements of individuals who cannot opt out or withdraw consent, and who are required to be in the school building where RFID readers have been deployed, is a worst-case scenario of how RFID technology shouldn’t be used.
While school officials in San Antonio claim that the RFID chips and readers are intended to facilitate attendance counts on which state aid to local school districts is based, they freely admit that the ability to track students is a desired feature of the system: “We’ve got to know who is where in that school at all times,” a school district spokesperson told NPR last June.
The school district’s spokesperson also claims that, “The important thing to keep in mind and for the public is that this technology doesn’t extend beyond the walls of the school.” And the school district’s website says categorically that, “‘Smart’ ID Cards will only work inside the school.” But that simply isn’t true. Students carrying RFID badges can be tracked by anyone, anywhere. Nothing in the technology or the law limits the use of the RFID badges to school premises. Anyone carrying an RFID badge can be tracked, legally, by anyone, anywhere, with a suitable reader.
The RFID tracking system will create detailed records in the hands of school officials of how students exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of assembly. We can find nothing on the school district’s website to say what, if any, policy will govern the use, retention, and sharing of data derived from RFID tracking about such matters as who students hang out with, where in the school building they go, and how often and for how long they go to the school bathrooms.
The Privacy Act prohibits Federal agencies, except with express statutory authority, from keeping records of activities protected by the First Amendment. But it’s not clear if there’s any similar constraint (other than that of the U.S. Constitution itself, of course) on the actions of Texas state and local government agencies. We think the same restrictions should apply to Texas authorities as to the Feds.