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Tagged and Tracked

​GONE ARE the days when roll call during homeroom was the only way to figure out which students made it to class. School districts are turning to sophisticated technology to keep tabs on their charges. Among these is a school district in San Antonio, Texas, which this fall implemented a smartcard ID system that would, among other things, allow the school to track students by radio frequency identification (RFID) chips embedded in the cards. San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District is testing the cards in a pilot program at two schools with a combined enrollment of more than 4,000 students.

The school district likes that the ID cards, in addition to enabling tracking, can be used for other functions, such as buying food at the cafeteria and checking books out of the library, says Pascual Gonzalez, executive director of communications for San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District. Also important is that Texas schools rely on student attendance counts for funding. The RFID tags give schools a way to verify and document that students were on campus.

The chips can be read by one of about 80 readers installed at locations inside the schools; if a student is not in class and needs to be located, the student’s designated number can be searched in a computer with access to the readers. If the student is anywhere on campus, “we can find him,” says Gonzalez.

Northside isn’t the first to try to track students with the technology. Schools in Houston have used RFID tracking, and some California schools tried the chips. It’s also been used in the United Kingdom.

Students at the pilot schools have protested the implementation of the RFID chips, according to news reports. Additionally, numerous privacy advocacy groups have signed a position paper arguing against the use of RFID tracking in schools. Among the reasons cited in the paper were that the use of RFID threatens civil liberties, privacy, and free speech.

Gonzalez questions the legitimacy of the privacy concerns given that it is a school’s responsibility to be aware of where the students are. “These are students in a public school whose parents have charged us with their safety during the school day. This is one way that we can do this, and it is the right of the school to know where the kids are. That’s what school’s all about,” says Gonzalez.

Critics worry that RFID is an unsecure technology. “What happens when somebody stands outside with a reader? What kind of information are they collecting? And what kind of risk does that put the kid, a particular kid, at if there’s a custody battle and a noncustodial parent is standing outside with a reader being able to track a child through the school?” asks Rebecca Jeschke, digital rights analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Gonzalez counters that “there is nothing that is being transmitted by the smart student ID that would [reveal useful information to] somebody that does not have authorization to know.”

Jeschke further says that the chip probably doesn’t achieve what the schools want because a student who doesn’t want to be located can simply leave the card behind. Gonzalez says that the district is making efforts to combat students leaving the ID cards in lockers or giving them to friends and then leaving school. Additionally administrators can tell if a card is “static.” Which would imply that it is not being worn. Students walking around without identification will be asked to go retrieve the card. And administrators could see that a student who is marked absent in class might have his ID card registering that he was present, which would indicate that someone else had the card. Furthermore, a parent and student awareness program is underway, which is “key to successful implementation,” says Gonzalez.

The advocacy groups also claim in the paper that there are potential health risks. “RFID systems emit electromagnetic radiation, and there are lingering questions about whether human health might be affected in environments where the reading devices are pervasive,” states the paper. Gonzalez says that “it is incorrect to classify the system as emitting electromagnetic radiation. The badges use CR2032 batteries commonly found at any hardware store.” He added that there are no emissions generated by the readers.

Gonzalez says the program will be assessed in the summer of 2013 to determine whether it should be expanded.