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RFID, chips: School superintendents struck a deal with a local maker of the technology last year to test the system to track attendance and weed out trespassers.
By Admin (from 07/11/2012 @ 05:06:37, in en - Science and Society, read 1410 times)

Parents of elementary and middle school students in a small California town are protesting a tracking program their school recently launched, which requires students to wear identification badges embedded with radio frequency, or RFID, chips.

School superintendents struck a deal with a local maker of the technology last year to test the system to track attendance and weed out trespassers.

But students and parents, who weren't told about the RFID chips until they complained, are upset over what they say are surreptitious tactics the school used to implement the program. They also question the ethics of a monetary deal the school made with the company to test and promote its product, using students as guinea pigs.

"This is not right for our kids," said Michele Tatro, whose daughter received a badge. "I'm not willing for anybody to track me and I don't think my children should be tracked, either."

The InClass RFID system was developed by two local high school teachers in Sutter, California, who helped found the company, InCom, that markets the system. Last year, the company approached the principal and superintendent of Brittan Elementary School District with the idea of testing InClass. The company offered the elementary school a donation of "a couple thousand dollars," according to the school's attorney, Paul Nicholas Boylan, as compensation for possible inconveniences caused by the test.

Boylan said the plan seemed like a good idea at the time and that the outcry was "completely unanticipated."

"But these issues are far more complicated than they first looked," he said, admitting that "this is a test of something new. No one knows whether this technology is going to work or not."
The system consists of a photo ID card affixed to a lanyard and worn around the neck. Embedded in the card is an RFID chip that contains a 15-digit number assigned to each student. As students pass beneath a doorway scanner on their way into a classroom, the scanner records the number and sends it to a server in the school's administrative office.
The server translates the digits into names and sends an attendance list to the teacher's PDA, identifying all of the students who walked through the door. The teacher then visually verifies that the names on the PDA list match the students in the classroom.

The company installed the scanners and server last summer, but students only recently received the badges. InCom didn't return a call for comment, but according to a press release (PDF) on its website, the company plans to market the product nationwide next week at the American Association of School Administrators conference in Texas. Attorney Boylan said the school district stands to earn a royalty on future sales, and InCom has promised to install a schoolwide system at Brittan free of charge after the test is completed.

Brittan is the first school in California to use RFID, but not the first in the nation. Spring Independent School District near Houston, Texas, recently gave 28,000 students RFID badges to record when students get on and off school buses. The information is monitored by the police and school administrators to prevent child abductions and truancy. A handful of other schools have tested similar projects.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said the technology's privacy threats are real.

"The proliferation of RFIDs and their use in identity documents is of serious concern," Ozer said. "Not just for people with children but for all of us in terms of monitoring."

Last December, when her 13-year-old daughter, Lauren, mentioned that students at her school would be getting "nametags," Michele Tatro thought nothing of it.

"They've always had student IDs to get into dances and get discounts at football games," Tatro said. "So I didn't even fathom the tracking (aspect). I had never heard of RFID until it came to my doorstep."

Then, when Tatro collected Lauren from school a few weeks ago, her daughter was furious.

"She shoves (the badge) in front of me and says 'Look at this!'" Tatro said. "She's mad and exasperated because someone has forced this upon her, and she feels like she can't do anything about it."

The Tatros and the parents of another student told the school, which includes grades kindergarten through 8th grade, that their children wouldn't participate in the project. The school sent a letter threatening disciplinary action if students didn't participate. So the parents contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and other civil liberties groups. A handful of other parents have withdrawn their children from the test project as well.

"We tried talking to (the school superintendents) twice," Tatro said. "They didn’t see our concerns."

Parents and civil liberty groups are also concerned about who has access to the collected data.

Boylan said the system offers security advantages since administrators would immediately know if a student didn't show up for class and could notify parents quickly. School officials could also quickly identify anyone who didn't belong on campus if they weren't wearing an RFID badge. But the main draw is a more efficient and accurate way to track and verify attendance in order to receive state funds.

"In California, the funding of schools is based on attendance," Boylan said. "Therefore we want (attendance) to be as accurate as we can. If we are wrong for whatever reason, it means we are getting less money than we should be getting." The system provides an audit trail to back up the district's claims if the state questions their numbers.
Boylan couldn't say how scanners above bathroom doors would help track attendance. InCom installed scanners outside 7th and 8th-grade classrooms at Brittan and above bathroom doors in a cafeteria. But
Boylan noted that the bathroom scanners never worked properly anyway, and the school has since asked InCom to remove them.

Boylan said the school properly notified parents about the test, as the law requires, and got no complaints. He said the school held an open board meeting to discuss the test and posted public notices describing the essence of the test, but could not say where exactly the notices were placed.

"At the office, possibly in town," he said.

On Jan. 12, Brittan did announce in its weekly newsletter (PDF) that the school would soon require students to wear ID badges, but didn't mention RFID chips or scanners in classroom doors.

It said only that the school would soon issue "new safety ID badges" that students should wear "at all times" during normal school hours. The announcement also said students would be held accountable for the cost of replacing lost or destroyed badges.

Lauren Tatro said that when principal Earnie Graham distributed the badges, he didn't mention the RFID chips in them or give students a choice about wearing the badges.

"Students asked questions," Tatro said, "but they couldn’t really be answered very well. We got just the basics of what they were but nothing about the tracking."

A week after receiving parent complaints, the school scheduled a gathering to demonstrate the technology and answer questions, but notified parents only a day in advance.

"We're not opposed to technology," Tatro said. "We’re opposed to the way they're applying the technology. This is a test bed (to gauge) public acceptance of this. If they get away with it here, somebody else will try something even more invasive somewhere else."

Boylan said the school is currently discussing with the company how much data it needs to test the system. And the school has decided to allow students to opt out of wearing badges until it makes a formal decision about the status of the project next week.

But Tatro said that even if the school modifies or cancels the project, they plan to lobby schools to abandon such plans nationwide.

"We feel a bit of responsibility that we have to make this known," Tatro said. "We don't want to deal with another application of it somewhere else. Even if they retract, we will press forward in any lobbying to the appropriate people that we don't want this technology used in this application in society."

Source: - Author: Kim Zetter

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