Privacy's devil truly in the details

Privacy's devil truly in the details

Summary: A Texas school puts RFID-enabled ID cards around students' necks, adding a religious twist to an on-going identity and privacy debate.


When a Texas school came under fire earlier this year for adopting RFID-enabled student IDs to keep tabs on school kids, the district was prepared to absorb criticism over the technology.

But it wasn't expecting a religious debate, which is what it got and then some, including a trip this week to federal court.

Andrea Hernandez, 15, and her father, Steven, see the student ID tag as the "mark of the beast" and she has refused to wear it even with the RFID tag removed.

The Bible's Book of Revelation warns that those who accept the mark of the beast will suffer God's wrath.

One of the school's stated intents for the badges is to ensure that it can properly count all kids who are at school, since attendance is linked to funding. School funding in Texas, like most places, has been on the wane.

But the religious issue and the funding issue are truly the devil in the details in what is a broader debate about identity and privacy.

On one side, the school district violated the first tenets of the Laws of Identity, first rolled out in 2005 and refined via social debate. The laws were devised to understand the "dynamics causing digital identity systems to succeed or fail in various contexts." Ignoring them, the Laws warn, is akin to engineers flouting the laws of gravity.

The first Law says 'technical identity systems must only reveal information identifying a user with the user’s consent." The Texas school district violated this opt-in tenet, which was the first sign they were headed for friction.

A position paper by a group called Chip Free Schools , which is endorsed by the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Texans for Accountable Government among others, claims the use of chips can be dehumanizing (tracking you in the bathroom stall), is a violation of free speech and association (monitoring who you gather with), and teaches social conditioning at a critical juncture in a child's education (kids develop an expectation of being tracked and it lessens sensitivity to civil liberty concerns).

At a time when education systems are struggling, the need to safe guard funding is a necessary undertaking. And given recent events, knowing where kids are within schools can be a critical piece of information during an emergency.

But the school pleading its case for money while ignoring other social factors was evident in federal court this week.

The San Antonio Express News said Steven Hernandez "teared up while reading from the Bible on the witness stand. He added supporting the RFID project "would compromise our salvation for NISD (Northside Independent School District) to make some money."

From that angle the school's argument looks thin. Think if the district asked kids to complete a military obstacle course or wrestle a shark to win school funding? Or turn the tables, the school's teachers and administrators had to perform those tasks to get kids to school and secure funding.

The Express News story did note that on one particular morning the monitoring system ferreted out six students in the building who were not counted on attendance, netting the school an extra $180.

How have the students reacted? Some kids don't like it, some like the added speed of the lunch line (the card records their purchase) and the ability to check-out library books on their own. And one told the Express News, "we're over it."

What do you think? Digital natives? Or digital pawns?

Topics: Privacy, Enterprise 2.0


John Fontana is a journalist focusing on authentication, identity, privacy and security issues. Currently, he is the Identity Evangelist for strong authentication vendor Yubico, where he also blogs about industry issues and standards work, including the FIDO Alliance.

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  • Tough one....

    This is really going to be a hard question to sort out. Perhaps the school(s) considering this should make it an optional selection and involve the parents in that decision. If parents want their children to be tracked digitally it is a great option for them, if not they should not be forced to do so.
    • So how is it the "mark of the beast"?

      I could say that any name tag, even a sticker was the mark of the beast, and therefor visitors or students should be able to walk freely around the school.
      William Farrel
      • You could

        and you would be correct. Modern business environment where everyone wears uniform and is tagged with the name label, feels pretty much like a prison camp.
  • Reply - Privacy's Devil Truly In The Details

    In The Book of Revelation, Chapter 14, Verse 9 it says, "...and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand...". Somehow wearing a Student ID Badge just doesn't seem to qualify as The Mark of the Beast. The mark is "RECEIVED" which implies and is re-enforced in the rest of the thought in context, that once the mark is "received" it cannot be modified or removed as a Student ID Badge clearly can.

    In full context it also says that it marks a personal choice that has irrevocable consequences. So yes!, examine such things closely and judge correctly. An RFID Student Badge worn around the neck, according to Revelation 14:9 and the full context, doesn't qualify as "The Mark of the Beast" since it can be modified or removed and bares no spiritual, eternal and irrevocable consequences that would cause one to be cast into the "Lake of Fire" as outlined in Revelation Chapter 19.
    The Rifleman
    • Wow

      Quoting works of fiction as fact again? That can get you in trouble.

      The fact of the matter is, this is an overreach by the government and sets a menacing step toward tyranny.
      • RE: Wow

        Actually, I believe The Rifleman was finishing the quote which people have trimmed to suit their purposes. I'm not usually one for any religion being brought in as fact, but in this specific case, the user was clarifying what is meant by the biblical passage "Mark of the beast."

        I think a bit of leeway is allowed in this case. Even if the Bible is not regarded as fact by some (including me, by the way,) like all text, if one quotes a section, the entire section should be quoted, not just the bit which suits the purposes of the speaker.
        • @ Psychaotix

          Your opening statement is correct about my intent.

          It's not relevant as to whether the Book of Revelation is fiction or non-fiction. Portions of Chapter 14 are always quoted as the foundation to justify a false assertion. When in context, one can see that "The Mark of the Beast" prevents one from buying and selling anything! The RFID Student ID Badge does not restrict in any way, shape, or form, the students ability or her father's ability to buy and sell. Therefore, combined with other failings of test, the assertion that the RFID Student ID Badge is "The Mark of the Beast" is an epic fail of biblical proportion!
          The Rifleman
          • I think if you are going to discount the relavence of fiction

            vs non fiction then it is not really fair to take the works as being literal... Unless you also would like to argue the literal truth of the story of Jonah and the whale.

            "The mark is "RECEIVED" which implies and is re-enforced in the rest of the thought in context, that once the mark is "received" it cannot be modified or removed as a Student ID Badge clearly can."

            If we do not speak out against policies and laws that require us to "receive" an id tag that allows tracking and our children are conditioned to believe that this is a reasonable necessity for their convenience, safety, etc. then they will be disallowed to go to school, buy their lunches... there are any number of things they will not be able to do unless they do "receive" the mark.

            Later in life these children who are already "over it" will have no problem accepting a more permanent ID, possibly implanted an RFID or something similar, and they will surely look at those who aren't as accepting as kooks, alarmists and religious extremists. They won't value or even be aware of the freedoms they have been swindled out of and their complicity has allowed political powers to remove from the rest of the people.

            I'm not so concerned with the validity of the prophecy as far as my soul and eternal damnation or arguing over the literal accuracy of the prophecy so much as I think its a bad idea to take lightly any policy that encroaches upon and threatens our liberties.
  • Definitely pawns...

    Of course the kids don't care - they don't understand the ramifications. It's been shown time and again that teenagers are incapable of acting in their own self-interest in many situations. They just don't understand the consequences of their actions (alcohol, drugs, sexting, etc.) They're already being tracked everywhere online, and in the real world using their smart phones and other digital devices. This is just another step along that road for them. The government has every intention of tracking all citizens as much as they will let it do so. It's up to parents to decide whether or not they are willing to go along. In the end, the only way they'll be able to avoid it is home schooling. The courts will not rule in favor of a religious exemption (my opinion based on similar cases).
  • Why is this a issue...

    Why is this a issue? If she doesn't want to were the badge, fine. But don't let her attend the school in question. There's probably a parochial school just around the corner she can pay to attend....
  • But this is Texas...

    And Texas is notable for being a hotbed of what is usually referred to as the "Religious Right." And many, many of these are fundamentalists who believe in the word of the Bible rather than an interpretation, Rifleman. So when they see "received," they would (I think) regard that as a literal (abet invisible) mark which could not be removed.

    Remember too, Rick Perry is our Gub'ner, and he and many of the good people of the afore mentioned "Religious Right" want to teach Genesis in place of science; Creationism and "Young Earth" rather than Geology. And... well, you can imagine.....

    Not for nothing is Texas's Public School System ranked at Third World level.
  • Amazing

    The depths to which human stupidity is able to sink again and again never ceases to amaze me.