Rhode Island School Pilots GPS, RFID on Busses

A plan to use GPS and RFID to track students on busses raises questions about using a technology on children that was originally designed to track products and cattle.

When Brittan Elementary School District in Sutter, California quietly kicked off a pilot program in 2005 that required its students to wear an identification badge implanted with an RFID chip, the program ignited a massive privacy debate that resulted, two years later, in anti-RFID legislation. Now a small school district in Rhode Island , Middletown School Department, is planning to launch a similar pilot in January that would require students at Aquidneck Elementary School to wear RFID chipped backpacks.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a Jan. 4 letter to Schools Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger, criticized Middletown 's pilot program saying the technology, because of its tracking capabilities, treats children like "objects" and violates their privacy rights. Supt. Kraeger has said in media reports that she has no intention of backing down on the school's pilot program plans and Edward Collins, director of Facilities at Middletown School Department, who proposed the program, told eWeek that the school is beholding to parents' wishes regarding the pilot, and not the ACLU or the press. But the real question is whether Middletown 's plans will cause the firestorm in Rhode Island as it has in California ?

The comparison hasn't gone unnoticed, particularly by the ACLU.

"RFID technology was originally developed to track products and cattle. The privacy and security implications with using this technology for tagging human beings, particularly children, are considerable. Concerns about the use of RFID chips for non-commercial tracking purposes have been raised not only by organizations like the ACLU, but also by a variety of government organizations, elected representatives and independent researchers who specialize in RFID technology," wrote Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the ACLU. "We note that when a similar program was introduced a few years ago in a California school system in an even less intrusive manner - requiring students to wear RFID badges while they were actually in school - an outcry from parents led to its quick abandonment."

The pilot program in question at Aquidneck Elementary is MAP , or Mobile Accountability Program, that has three technology components: GPS ( global positioning system) tracking devices to track school busses on their routes; RFID readers placed on the busses to read RFID tags; and the RFID tags themselves. For Middletown 's pilot programs GPS has been installed, along with RFID readers, in two school busses. The tags themselves will be affixed to the backpacks of about 80 students. Once the technology is in place - in about the next two weeks- school administrators will be able to monitor in real time both the progress of the busses on their routes, and the children as they enter and exit the bus.

"This is a more accountable way to provide accurate data to parents with regard to transporting their kids," said Collins. "We're not forcing this down anyone's throat. [With respect to the California pilot] there are two totally different ways that things are implemented here. We're not trying to monitor kids 24/7 - not by any means. I understand the concern, but if people are that concerned they can come down and talk to us."

Collins said that the school district sent out letters to parents informing them of the MAP program and that they have the ability to opt in our out of the pilot. So far, according to Collins, there have been no complaints from parents, and no requests to opt out. "We're continually trying new things, but the ultimate people we are going to respond to are the parents," he said. "We've gotten nothing negative - a few parents said they are looking forward to [the pilot]. There are no major concerns from this community. We're not responsible and accountable outside our controls. [RFID initiatives] on other levels, that's not our responsibility."

California Puts RFID Use on the Books

After the brouhaha in California at Brittan Elementary School District, state Sen. Joseph Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, authored a bill introducing security and privacy measures around the use of RFID-;particularly in government ID documents that would include schools. While that bill was shot down by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year, another bill sponsored by Sen. Simitian has been enacted into law, and others are pending. In October 2007 it became illegal for California employers and others to force anyone to have an RFID device implanted under their skin as a condition of receiving something - a paycheck or government benefits, for example.

In the wake of the 2006 veto Senator Simitian took the next feasible step. He cleaved the Identity Information and Protection Act into smaller bits and shipped them off to the legislature as five separate bills. SB 362, the anti-forced human chipping bill, is the first of those smaller bills to see the light of day. It could have positive implications for the remaining four RFID bills trundling through California's legislative process -and serve as bell-weather legislation for other state's actions regarding RFID.

"RFID technology is not in and of itself the issue. RFID is a minor miracle, with all sorts of good uses," said Senator Simitian, in an Oct. 15 interview with eWEEK. "But we cannot and should not condone forced 'tagging' of humans. It's the ultimate invasion of privacy."