School Bus
A pilot program to monitor children on school buses in Gordon County, Ga., has some privacy advocates concerned. Cast a Line/Flickr

“This is not about Big Brother,” said Andrej Jeremic, director of marketing and business development for the East Coast Diversified Corp. (PINK:ECDC), a technology firm based in Marietta, Ga.

Jeremic was referring to a new high-tech pilot program to keep track of students on school buses in the Gordon County School District, about 60 miles north of Atlanta. The program, a first for the Peach State, was announced this month by East Coast Diversified and its subsidiary, StudentConnect, which specializes in creating “student transportation and class attendance management systems” that use a combination of GPS and radio-frequency identification technologies.

If that gave you pause, you’re not alone. RFID is the topic of increasingly contentious debates among parents and public-school officials. Much to the concern of many privacy advocates -- including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation -- the tiny tracking technology has slowly been edging its way into student ID badges as a means of monitoring students’ whereabouts, combating truancy and improving safety. A notable legal battle over the technology unfolded last year in San Antonio, Texas, where a federal judge ruled against a teenager who had refused to wear an RFID-enabled badge around her neck, as reported by PCWorld.

In a phone interview, Jeremic acknowledged that the mention of RFID tends to stir jitters among the privacy conscious, but he insisted that StudentConnect is not a tracking device; rather he said it is a notification system that provides information about students’ attendance and alerts parents and school officials if a student deviates from his or her normal schedule.

“We don’t track students,” Jeremic said. “We watch for anomalies. So if little Johnny is off playing in the arcade instead of on the bus, we can let his parents know he’s not where he’s supposed to be.”

But Khaliah Barnes, administrative law council for the civil-liberties group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said that description doesn’t tell the whole story.

“The problem with RFID tags is that they can be read from a distance by malefactors, including stalkers,” she said. “We don’t think enough parents are aware that the chips can be read at a distance.”

StudentConnect uses passive RFID technology, meaning the range of the tags are limited (usually to a few inches or feet) and they only transmit a signal when they’re in proximity of a reading device. However, Barnes stresses that there is a slippery-slope element to normalizing RFID technology. What begins today as a simple monitoring system for attendance can grow into an intrusive data-collection empire quicker than we’d like to admit. She added that the apprehension about using RFID technology to monitor human beings is well warranted, particularly when it pertains the generation who will one day be running the world.

“What you’re doing is telling kids it’s normal to be tracked,” she said.

It’s an argument we hear often from privacy advocates, including Chad Brock, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Georgia, who said StudentConnect is the first he’s heard of an RFID system being implemented in a Georgia school district.

“There is a conditioning aspect to this that concerns us,” he said.

StudentConnect uses a wireless reader to communicate with RFID-enabled badges. When a child is in range, the reader transmits data to a GPS system. In the case of Gordon County, readers are being installed on school-bus doors, and Jeremic said the system is only being used for notification purposes, giving parents and schools the ability to log on and view students’ attendance records.

The program is not mandatory and parents may opt out, but Barnes and Brock, along with other privacy groups, think it should be the other way around. “We always advocate for opt-in programs,” Barnes said. “It makes parents more implicit in the decision.”

In addition to school buses, East Coast Diversified also offers the StudentConnect system to monitor attendance in classrooms, but Geary Cooper, the director of transportation for the Gordon County School District, told International Business Times that the district wasn’t interested in using the system inside the schools. He said instances of children being left behind in classrooms or on buses are a real problem in Gordon County, and he sees StudentConnect as a potential remedy.

“My sole concern is the buses,” Cooper said. “It’s sad that some parents need a text message to remind them to meet their child at the bus, but that’s the reality.”

The Safety Dance

However you feel about RFID technology, it’s hard to argue against anything that makes kids safer. Benjamin Franklin’s famous warning against giving up liberty in exchange for safety doesn’t quite translate when first graders enter the picture.

“We’re talking about our most precious assets,” said Kayode Aladesuyi, East Coast Diversified’s chairman and chief officer.

In speaking about StudentConnect’s potential for improving student safety, Aladesuyi conceded that a “very small but loud minority” of parents have raised privacy protection concerns. But he said research shows that the vast majority of parents are not opposed to RFID technology if it means improving the baseline for their own kids’ security. He points to an independent research study commissioned by East Coast Diversified’s EarthSearch Communications, which found that a staggering 96 percent of parents would support a safety program that requires students to wear an auto ID badge. Almost as many, 94 percent, said they are “very interested” in learning more about their child’s behavior during school hours.

But Barnes takes issue with the argument that RFID badges make students safer. She said high-tech monitoring of students’ whereabouts is a double-edged sword, with RFID systems bringing with them an equal potential for abuse.

“Kids could take the badges off,” she said. “They could leave them with a friend, or in a classroom. Parents might not be aware that anything is wrong until it’s too late.”

“It’s not a fail-safe,” added Brock. “And, in fact, we think it has the potential to make kids less safe. It can condition school administrators to become lazy on the job, to sit back and assume the technology is doing the work for them.”

Then there is the issue of hacking, which Barnes said is an easier trick to pull off than most people realize. For instance, the use of RFID chips in credit cards, passports and other items has brought countless reports of security breaches. And nearly anyone with enough motivation can learn how to break in, through online hacking tutorials. In light of such concerns, Brock stressed that the Georgia ACLU is not against using technology to improve students’ safety, but he said he doesn’t think RFID tracking is “the right way to do it.”

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

For East Coast Diversified, the Gordon County school district is a bit of a test bed -- the pilot program there is the first for StudentConnect. According to Cooper, it will be used on four district school buses until May 23, with the program going district wide if it’s successful. Based on the StudentConnect website, East Coast Diversified is already forecasting that success, with modules to monitor “Student Status” and “Class Attendance” coming soon. “Peace of mind,” the website promises.

And yet amid all the talk of student safety and truancy reduction, it’s worth noting that the engine behind RFID monitoring is money. StudentConnect is advertiser supported, with parents receiving ads for local and national businesses along with their notifications. That means it comes at no cost to schools, a notion that speaks well to school officials struggling to improve safety infrastructure on overextended budgets. Even Cooper admitted that it was a large part of the system’s appeal. “It’s hard to pass up free,” he said.

For privacy advocates like Barnes, that element of enticement is especially disconcerting. She sympathizes with the needs of school districts to enforce safety with scant resources, but she urged school officials and parents to consider what they’re being asked to give up -- something that RFID technology companies won’t tell you in the brochure.

“That’s not part of the pitch,” she said. “They’ll laud it as a free service, but they never talk about the costs in terms of student privacy.”

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