FEATURE ARTICLE

Showdown in San Antonio by Liz McIntyre and Katherine Albrecht

Showdown in San Antonio by Liz McIntyre and Katherine Albrecht
 
Katherine Albrecht 
Date: 0000-00-00
Subject: POWER to the People

Reading, writing, and arithmetic weren't the only "R's" students faced when they returned to San Antonio's Jay High School and Jones Middle School this August. RFID was also on the agenda.

RFID is the short-hand term for "Radio Frequency Identification," a technology that uses tiny microchips, some smaller than a grain of sand, to track items from a distance. RFID microchips have earned the nickname "spychips" because each contains a unique identification number, like a Social Security number, for things. These identification and tracking numbers can be read silently and invisibly by radio waves, right through walls, clothing, purses, backpacks and wallets.

RFID was originally developed to keep track of inventory in warehouses and keep tabs on farm animals, but developers saw a potential goldmine in extending its uses to people tracking. Most people don't like being spied on, but vendors figured they might make headway by starting with people who couldn't say no.

Over the years, the elderly, people with dementia, and corpses have been "fair game." But now school children"especially those in lower-socio-economic-level schools"are in the crosshairs.

Northside Independent School District, the largest school district in the San Antonio, Texas area, decided  students at Jay High and Jones Middle were the perfect guinea pigs for trialing RFID. It's probably not coincidental that these schools have a high Hispanic population, most kids qualify for free lunches, and many parents are busy working more than one job to make ends meet. Some likely worry about potential deportation.

"Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is argument of tyrants. It is the creed of slaves." 
 
--William Pitt (1759-1806), British Prime Minister 
 

Board members told parents of students in these Title I schools that the move to RFID surveillance was necessary to boost revenues lost due to absences. Kids were sometimes AWOL or in a counselor's office or somewhere else during attendance checks. RFID would allow them to pinpoint the exact location of any student at any time and even document his or her movements, proving the schools deserved state and federal funds. They sweetened the news by hyping the safety benefits of technological omniscience.  (Though government people monitoring makes kids"and all of us"much less safe in the long run.)

Students were issued mandatory identification badges equipped with RFID tracking beacons to be worn around their necks at all times"or else.

Administrators tried to squelch any concerns or resistance by claiming the RFID tags would only be tracked while students were inside the school, even though the badges are capable of transmitting up to 70 feet at all times, thanks to the 2 cell batteries on board. They failed to mention (or perhaps didn't realize) that the badges would always be "on," and that anyone with the right reader device"perhaps a pedophile, stalker, or jealous boyfriend"could track students off campus.

What they didn't count on was Steve Hernandez, his daughter Andrea, and hundreds of supporters around the world watching the "wanna be" watchers.

The schools' planned quiet encroachment of student privacy and civil liberties turned into a very public battle, very quickly, when Jay High School Honor Student Andrea Hernandez vowed not to wear the new ID badge, a device she compared to a pet collar or leash. Her parents backed her decision, and much to the dismay of school officials, she reiterated her vow on local TV.
 
San Antonio News Covers the RFID School Tracking Protest  (Video):
 

The schools also didn't plan for the world's major privacy and civil liberties organizations to lend Andrea, her family, and all the students support.

We decided it was high time to have a showdown on RFID tracking in schools. Leading privacy and civil liberties organizations joined with us to issue and endorse The Position Paper on RFID in Schools  (link to http://www.spychips.com/school/RFIDSchoolPositionPaper.pdf) we drafted"the ACLU, EPIC, EFF, and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse are just a few of the names you might recognize.

I have found that the greatest help in meeting any problem with decency and self-respect and whatever courage is demanded, is to know where you yourself stand. That is, to have in words what you believe and are acting from.
  --William Faulkner (1897 - 1962)

Reaction to the paper and Andrea's brave stand quickly ignited protests, with concerned citizens flying into San Antonio from as far away as Austin and Dallas on the first day of school. Parents, students, and other stakeholders lined the room of the school board meeting the next evening and shared the downsides and safety concerns about the technology"information the vendor, Wade Garcia and Associates, likely never mentioned.

Andrea is still standing strong with her family at her side, but they are on the edge of their seats wondering what will happen next. Her father Steve is concerned the school might expel his daughter or deny her books or privileges, but so far threats have simply remained threats.

The good news is that the ACLU has stepped in to help the Hernandez family and others assert their rights, and the story is sparking renewed interest in the serious privacy and civil liberties implications of RFID. In the last few days we've been fielding calls from reporters who are wondering if any school on their beat would dare to chip their students.

We are still watching and waiting with the rest of the free world to see how this chapter in the life of an invasive technology closes.  There have been whispering that other schools are also considering an RFID tracking agenda, and we're sure they're closely watching, as well.

School is a place where students should be learning to become free, independent, responsible adults. It is not a place to teach kids to submit to tracking schemes so they grow up expecting Big Brother has a right to watch them 24/7. Join with us in helping put an end to RFID people tracking and other surveillance initiatives that ultimately put us all at risk. You can read more about RFID and our very public battles over the technology at our website: www.spychips.com and in our award-winning book Spychips: How major corporations and government plan to track your every move with RFID.
 
 
Liz McIntyre is the Communications Director for CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering - NoCards.Org) and a freelance writer.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Dr. Katherine Albrecht is the founder and Director of CASPIAN and Vice President of Marketing for Startpage.com, the World's Most Private Search Engine.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Liz and  Katherine are consumer privacy experts and RFID experts. They are also co-authors of the bestselling book Spychips: How major corporations and government plan to track your every move with RFID. Spychips was honored with a Lysander Spooner Award for Advancing the Literature of Liberty.