RFID Tagging Students Is All About The Money

from the chips-for-dough dept

Usually when I think of RFID chips, I tend to think of them being used for safety purposes. After all, my dog is chipped in case she decides to run off for greener pastures or tastier treats (DAMN IT, DOG, I GIVE YOU BACON ALL THE TIME!). But, despite safety often being the front man for using RFID technology, it often ends up being more about the money, such as when we previously wrote about Cleveland chipping citizens' garbage and recycling cans because recycling was a financial benefit for the city.

So reading the Wired article covering a Texas school district's decision to impliment RFID student cards, I wasn't surprised to find that it looks like this is about cash rather than keeping students safe. Now, as you'd expect, proponents of the system, did trot out their "for the children" cannon and set it on full auto.

[District spokesman Pascual Gonzalez] 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.
Unfortunately, as the article notes less vulgarly, that's a big steamy pile of bullshit for two reasons. First, due to lack of encryption and the nature of the technology, any tech-savvy kid can fool the system.

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.

If you're wondering, like I did, why they would allow such a gap in the system through which their safety-minded goals could be subverted, the likely answer is that they don't care. Because this doesn't appear to be about safety at all; it appears to be about federal funding based on attendance.
Like most state-financed schools, their budgets are tied to average daily attendance. 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.
So, with the chip system, even if a student is not in class and is just wandering around campus, he's counted as being in attendance and the school gets their funding. It's essentially a high tech way to game the federal funding metrics. It doesn't help keep students safe. It doesn't help make sure the kids are actually in class or learning. It's a money grab. And all this, despite the concerns of privacy advocates like the EFF and the ACLU, who signed on to a paper (pdf) blasting use of the chips, citing health concerns over electromagnetic radiation as well as the dehumanizing of children through constant surveillance.

A tip for school districts: if you're going to use RFID chips as a way to get more federal funding while pretending it's about student safety, pretend harder.


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  1. icon
    fb39ca4 (profile), 14 Sep 2012 @ 9:31pm

    I want to walk around that school with some RFID jammers.

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