By Matt Simpson
ACLU of Texas Policy Strategist
Rep. Kolkhorst of District 13 (Brenham) filed two bills that, if passed, would bolster protections for individual privacy rights of students in Texas schools. HB 101 mandates that Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) student attendance tracking programs be voluntary and only implemented if approved by the school district board of trustees. The approval process would include an opportunity for students, parents and the public to offer comments. HB 102 cuts to the heart of the matter and bars school districts from requiring students to participate in an RFID badge program.
The ACLU of Texas opposes use of RFID technology to track studemts because the technology is not secure. This technology, originally used to track livestock, simply isn’t appropriate for use with children.
RFID is a generic term that is used to describe a system that transmits the identity (in the form of a unique serial number) of an object or person wirelessly, using radio waves. In schools, students wear RFID equipped ID cards that show their whereabouts at all times. On campus, RFID raises privacy concerns about the ability of school personnel to track students, even in restrooms. Off campus, RFID exposes students to stalking because the devices are easily hacked using simple, inexpensive devices called “readers” that cost as little as $8 on Ebay.
RFID technology to take attendance in schools made statewide news in October 2012 when John Jay High School north of San Antonio began tracking student attendance via RFID-equipped school ID cards. Prior to this, only a very small number of schools in the Houston area used this technology but the use of RFID to track students has raised serious concerns for some time.
The ACLU has monitored the expanded use of RFID technology with students. We have opposed such efforts because we don’t want to see this kind of intrusive surveillance infrastructure gain inroads into our culture, and because it is against American values of privacy and freedom to teach children to accept intrusive surveillance technology.
Rep. Kolkhorst’s proposals leave flexibility with local schools but the decision about tracking individuals rightly remains with students and their parents. This is a balance that should transcend politics and remind us that parental authority is only temporarily (and never fully) handed over to schools. Parents and students who share our concerns about the kind of intrusive, surveillance climate student tracking programs create should be able to opt out.
In truth, the ACLU of Texas encourages all school districts to avoid RFID controversy by ignoring the claims of savings used as selling points by RFID manufacturers and avoiding the purchase of expensive RFID tracking programs. RFID was designed to track commercial products and livestock, not humans. Students don’t need to be treated like parolees under house arrest with an ankle monitor. Finding creative, locally grown solutions to support education, promote school attendance and education funding is critical. But, RFID student tracking comes at too high a price.