Student ID Badges Raise Privacy Questions

A pilot program that used radio frequency ID badges to take attendance at a small California school may have failed, but the founder of the company that provided the technology says this isn’t the end of what could be a forward trend in American schools.

“We have gotten a lot of interest from other school districts, because of the media, and from other industries too,” said Doug Ahlers, a partner in InCom Corporation (search). The company worked with Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, Calif., in January to deploy badges fashioned with radio frequency identification technology (search) to help take attendance for the school’s seventh and eighth graders.

Every child in the school, grades kindergarten through 12, received an ID badge with a tiny tag carrying the RFID technology, which was activated only to take attendance when the older children entered their classrooms. The “reader,” a device mounted at the door, would read the student’s assigned number contained in the tag and register the child's presence that day, said Ahlers, who is a teacher at the high school in Sutter.

The idea came from Michael Dobson, a former student of Sutter schools, who was 21 years old when he co-founded InCom two years ago. “He knew teachers struggled with attendance and he knew how easy it was for students to get around it,” said Ahlers.

“His idea was to improve that and help the teacher out at the same time — it was designed to be an attendance-taking system,” Ahlers said.

RFID is already well known to the general public; "E-ZPass" tags on car windshields let drivers pay tolls without rolling down their windows, and a similar system is used to track grocery inventories.

But having children carry ID tags did not go over well with some parents and local privacy advocates, who called the use of RFID "Big Brother" at its worst.

They especially took exception to school principal Earnie Graham’s suggestion that the device could be used in the future for safety purposes, to help keep track of children when they are on the campus.

“There is a way to make kids safer without making them feel like a piece of inventory,” said Michael Cantrall, one of several parents who took the issue to the school board. The negative publicity led to the program’s termination last month.

“Are we trying to bring them up with respect and trust,” he asked, “or tell them that you can’t trust anyone, you are always going to be monitored and someone is always going to be watching you?”

RFID has been a source of controversy since its increased use in American daily life over the last decade or so. Not many people know, for example, that it’s used on a multitude of products on store shelves, from razor blades to clothing, to keep track of inventory.

Critics have long disputed claims that their use is for inventory only, and fear it is just another way for companies to keep track of individual purchases, to gather and share the data with interested parties, like the government and insurance companies.

Beth Givens, executive director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (search) in California, said the parents in Sutter were right to oppose what looks like the first attempt to use RFID in American schools.

“Mostly it has to do with the slippery slope, or mission creep or function creep -- a technology like this may start out with a narrow application, but it’s just going to grow, you can count on that,” she said.

“There will be more uses than just an attendance-taking tool. It will be a tracking tool among other things,” Givens added. “The RFID has become part of the wallpaper of society … we are little by little building around us an infrastructure of massive tracking schemes.”

But proponents of RFID say the technology is here to stay, and is less harmful than its critics make it out to be.

“(RFID) is not a GPS (global positioning system),” said Dan Mullen, head of the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility (search), a Pittsburgh-based trade association promoting commercial RFID technology. He said if the parents in California thought the RFID tags would follow children around like a tracking device, they were wrong.

“It’s more about whether someone has entered the school,” or the classroom, he said. “As a parent, I think a central part of me worries about my children at school and other places … I would want to hear exactly what the proposal was, but I think it would be of value and I would consider it.”

Duane Dunlap, head of the engineering and technology department at Western Carolina University, said the use of RFID in windshield tags, tracking animals, or security badges for employees, has made life more efficient, and in many cases, safer.

But as RFID has become more prevalent, he added, its invisible presence is helping to contribute to a growing infrastructure of tracking and control.

“It could be a good thing or it could be putty in the hands of those who would use it abusively,” Dunlap said.

Ahlers said the parents in Sutter who loudly opposed the system were a small minority who were able to command a national news audience by calling the new ID cards “Orwellian,” a reference to George Orwell’s novel, "1984," about a dictatorship that uses technology and media to control society.

“[Most] people were happy because you can actually use the system to locate your student,” said Ahlers. And in a world that the daily news depicts as increasingly dangerous, parents are always receptive to new safety ideas, he added.

He said the RFID plan for taking attendance is much less harmful to privacy concerns than the proliferation of cell phones among the student population. The location of many cell phone users today can be tracked through their phones’ signals, a fact Ahlers said is lost on most.

“When a student has a cell phone, that’s a tracking device,” said Ahlers. “If parents are really concerned about privacy, they’d take their cell phones away from kids.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.