A Wireless Leash

For people who think security cameras all over the place are intrusive, they’ll flip over what a charter school in Buffalo is doing. Wireless technology is being used to track students’ arrival times. But that’s just the start. The principal wants to expand the system to do such mundane tasks as check books in and out of the library and more controversial things like checking on when the kids get to their classes.

The technology, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, was originally developed as a next-generation bar code for stores to maintain inventory, do automatic checkout and catch shoplifters. This is the same system that caused a big scream from privacy advocates last spring when Benneton, the international clothing manufacturer, was rumored to be planning to sew RFID chips into the tags of it’s clothing. The fear was that the tags could be used after the sale to track customers, gather data on their shopping habits and target advertising at them. Wal-mart is planning to require many of their suppliers to use the tags in their warehouse pallets and containers by 2005 but not yet in the products themselves.

So should we tag kids as well as groceries? In concept, it’s not a bad idea. RFID would be great for automatically taking attendance (never one of my favorite tasks) and otherwise tracking students while in school. Before spreading the tags around, however, there needs to be some way to disable the tag at the school door and otherwise prevent the signal from being used for other purposes. Plus, schools need to figure out how to handle students trading tags as a gag to foul up the system or leaving their tags somewhere in the school while they head off to McDonald’s for lunch. Maybe we should attach the tag to the ear like migrating birds (kidding!).