Privacy's devil truly in the details

A Texas school puts RFID-enabled ID cards around students' necks, adding a religious twist to an on-going identity and privacy debate.
Written by John Fontana, Contributor

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?

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