Backpacker Tracker: San Antonio School District to Track Students with RFID

26 Nov

Big brother is bigger every day. Even in the freedom loving, independent minded state of Texas, government encroachment into peoples lives and privacy continues to grow. There are parents and students who are not fond of the idea having the government know every move their child is making. However, the  Northside school district in San Antonio is not the first to implement Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking. [1]

According to a Wired article [2] there have been previous cases of public schools implementing RFID tracking of the students (no word yet if the teachers are tracked as well). From the article:

“A federally funded preschool in Richmond, California, began embedding RFID chips in students’ clothing in 2010. And an elementary school outside of Sacramento, California, scrubbed a plan in 2005 amid a parental uproar. And a Houston, Texas, school district began using the chips to monitor students on 13 campuses in 2004.”

Even in a state as liberal as California, there is a lack of desire for students to be tracked with RFID technology. Many people have no idea what RFID is or does. A quick web search brings up the first link to the Wikipedia article[3] on RFIC which states it is “the use of a wireless non-contact system that uses radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to transfer data from a tag attached to an object, for the purposes of automatic identification and tracking”.

As with any inanimate object, the use of this technology could be good or bad, depending on who is behind it, the purpose of its use and the execution. Why does a school district want to track students? It is a one word answer: money. Again, from the Wired article:

“If a student is not in his seat during morning roll call, the district doesn’t receive daily funding for that pupil, because the school has no way of knowing for sure if the student is there.

But with the RFID tracking, students not at their desk but tracked on campus are counted as being in school that day, and the district receives its daily allotment for that student.”

It’s not about safety or security despite what district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez noted in a San Antonio Express-News article [4]. As with most things it boils down to money. Specifically taxpayer money. Of course looking into root cause as to why the students are not there to be counted would make too much sense. Instead of treating the root cause, the school district chooses to treat the symptom. Sadly the typical operating procedure for most government agencies. From the San Antonio Express-News article:

“The district plans to spend $525,065 to implement the pilot program and $136,005 per year to run it, but it will more than pay for itself, predicted Steve Bassett, Northside’s assistant superintendent for budget and finance. If successful, Northside would get $1.7 million next year from both higher attendance and Medicaid reimbursements for busing special education students, he said.”

Not only is the focus on attendance money from the school district taxes but the ISD wants a larger piece of the Medicaid pie for special needs students. It is essentially using handicapped and disabled students as pawns to get more government money because it cannot or will not be more efficient with the money it already obtains. Just how much do the employees in the ISD administration make and what type of pay cuts, if any, have they taken in the name of helping the children. If the children really are the number one focus of the ISD.

The Northside school district has worked to strong arm the students into using the new RFID embedded school IDs. According to an article at the Huffington Post, if the students do not use them they “cannot access common areas like the cafeteria or library, and cannot purchase tickets to extracurricular activities,” and they would also not be allowed to vote for homecoming [5].

Parents have voice their concern over the RFID embedded school IDs and one is taking it a step further. Andrea Hernandez, a student at High School, has refused to wear the new ID. Instead she wears her originally issued ID without the RFID tracking technology. She was refused the privilege of voting for homecoming for using her old ID instead of the new one.[6]

“About two weeks ago when I went to cast my vote for homecoming king and queen I had a teacher tell me I would not be allowed to vote because I did not have the proper voter ID,” she explained. “I had my old student ID card which they originally told us would be good for the entire four years we were in school. He said I needed the new ID with the chip in order to vote.”

Andrea and her family reached out to the ACLU for help. Previously the ACLU had fought and won getting the use of RFID technology removed in a pilot school in California back in 2005. Unfortunately for the Hernandez family, the ACLU, chose not to take their case based on religious reasons. According to the World Net Daily article:

Steve Hernandez reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union, but was rebuffed because organization officials didn’t feel Andrea’s religious concerns would advance their core mission.

In an email to Hernandez, Rebecca Robertson with the ACLU of Texas told him, “the ACLU of Texas will not be able to represent you or your daughter in this matter.”

In citing its reasons for refusing to take the case Robertson said among the factors they use to decide to take a case are whether it “has the potential to achieve broad and lasting advances in civil liberties” and as such, Andrea’s case does not apparently meet that threshold.

While I don’t completely disagree the religious argument is not the strongest to use, for the ACLU to apparently flat out deny the family help without making some type of suggestion of changing the lawsuit with a stronger case is sad and pathetic. It appears if someone is a person of faith, the ACLU isn’t as concerned about their civil liberties.

There is hope though this issue could be handled legally out side the courts but on a higher level. In North Dakota and Wiconsin, there are state laws which have been enacted banning the use of forced RFID implants. [7],[8] Senator Dan Patrick was recently appointed the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Clearly Wrong has reached out to Senator Patrick for his comments and thoughts on addressing the RFID issue in public schools now and in the upcoming legislative session.

One glarling flaw with RFID is they are not encrypted by default. Any techno-thief could come by and read the information from and RFID tag with minimal effort. This issue has been seen with credit cards using RFID technology. In PC World article [9], details of how thieves are using around $350 worth of equipment to read RFID enabled credit cards then take that information and put it on a new card. From there it’s time to go on a shopping spree.

If the technology is so misused and insecure with credit cards, surly a government institution has learned the lesson and made its implementation without those faults right? Not so fast. Going back to the Wired article mentioned earlier:

As for privacy, the system only monitors a student’s movements on campus. Once a student leaves campus, the chips no longer communicate with the district’s sensors.

He said the chips, which are not encrypted and chronicle students only by a serial number, also assist school officials to pinpoint where kids are at any given time, which he says is good for safety reasons. “With this RFID, we know exactly where the kid is within the school,” he said noting students are required to wear the ID on a lanyard at all times on campus.

The lack of encryption makes it not technically difficult to clone a card to impersonate a fellow student or to create a substitute card to play hooky, and makes the cards readable by anyone who wanted to install their own RFID reader, though all they would get is a serial number that’s correlated with the student’s ID number in a school database.

The tech savvy kids today could easily still get away from school and still appear to be on campus to the “eyes” of the RFID system implemented by the schools. Though with all the money they are reeving from a student still being “counted” one would have to ask if they really would do much in those cases. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to see a school district turning a blind eye until something really bad happened to a student in just that scenario.

According to The Republic website, in response to the forced use of RFID in the school IDs, the hacktivist group Anonymous, has claimed responsibility for taking down the school districts website.[10] A teenager, who says he was working with the group, reportedly took down the website because Northside school district “is stripping away the privacy of students in your school.”

It is up to the parents to keep a watchful not only on their children but how the public schools are treating their children. Being an active and involved parent takes effort and not enough of them are putting forth the effort today. But without the effort, children could become pawns in the game of getting more money from state and federal governments at their and their family’s expense.

References –

  1. Northside ISD Student Locator Pilot
  2. Tracking School Children With RFID Tags? It’s All About the Benjamins – Wired
  3. Radio-frequency identification – Wikipedia
  4. Students will be tracked via chips in IDs – San Antonio Express-News
  5. Texas School District Reportedly Threatening Students Who Refuse Tracking ID, Can’t Vote For Homecoming – Huffington Post
  6. Wear radio chip or leave, school tells students – World Net Daily
  7. N.D. bans forced RFID chipping – ComputerWorld
  8. Wisconsin law bars forced RFID implants – Computerworld
  9. RFID Credit Cards Are Easy Prey for Hackers, Demo Shows – PC World
  10. In latest controversy over student tracking devices, Texas school district’s website hacked – The Republic
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One Response to “Backpacker Tracker: San Antonio School District to Track Students with RFID”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Handy ID: Palm Scanners Approved for Use in Schools, Hospitals « Clearly Wrong - November 26, 2012

    […] if forced RFID tracking in schools wasn’t bad enough, now forced biometric usage is coming down the pipe. According to an […]

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