RIFD Tracking of Students

A BBC News Technology (2013) reported the case of a Texan student, Andrea Hernandez, who was asked to either comply with the regulations and wear a badge with radio tracking embedded biometric chip or move to another educational system that does not specify that requirement. Radio tracking and surveillance of students is nothing new in the modern “Surveillance Society” (Wood, et al., 2006) that can be defined as “…purposeful, routine, systematic and focused attention paid to personal details, for the sake of control, entitlement, management, influence or protection” (Wood, et al., 2006, p. 4). Routine surveillance including metrological patterns, geographical, environment, movement of people and goods through the borders, people and their behaviour in public places, tracking traffic, customer surveillance in stores and safety critical areas such as banks and military establishments are meant for improving the protection and control. However, when it comes to the personal tracking of human beings, especially children, using biometric systems, the use and misuse of the gathered data can lead to ethical issues such as they are construed by the society based on its beliefs and values (Neuman, 2007, p. 1).

A recent article in the UKcolumn(2013) reports that such tracking of students using biometric systems has been allowed in UK schools by the Information Commissioner’s Office, right from 2001, as it did not find any infringement of the Data Protection Act by the this method. In the UK the RIFD tagging scheme needs the consent of at least one parent for tracking students under the age of 18, conforming to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (legislation.gov.uk, 2012). This paper investigates the ethical implications of using such biometric systems such as the RIFD to track and monitor students under constant surveillance. Biometric technologies are automated systems that can be used to identify and verify human beings from data regarding their physiological or behavioural characteristics such as finger prints, retinal eye scans, DNA and so on (CSSS Policy Brief No 1/03, 2003, p. 1) and are statistical and mathematical systems that are applied to analysis of biological systems (Cosmi, et al., 2009, p. 57). In this regard, the newer and more controversial advances such as radio tagging through the radio frequency identification (RIFD) tags (Neuman, 2007, p. 1).

The RIFD is a chip that includes a storage part with a vast amount of digital information and an antenna that serves to transmit the data to a receiver that is programmed to read and transcribe the data as needed (Neuman, 2007, p. 1). The biometric chip can be placed on objects like ID cards, passports merchandise and even embedded under the skin of animals and human beings (Fitzpatrick, 2013). This type of surveillance was called ‘dataveillance’ by Roger Clarke who defines it as “use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons” (Clarke, 1987).

The biometric identification systems grew from $600 million to a whopping $4 billion industry in just five years from 2002, showing its development in the recent years.RIFD tags have many advantages: these tags can be read from greater distances and there is no need to maintain a line of sight between the tag and the reader; a lot of data can be stored on the tag and these can be modified if needed by using an interrogator (Bolić, et al., 2010, p. 4).

The schools make use of the biometric identification chip to track students inside the campus for attendance purposes, as was the case in the school where Hernandez studied, and also for other purposes such as drug testing, monitoring what children’s behaviours by making use of the cashless cards systems that not only identified the child but also everything that the child ate at the cafeteria, or the equipment purchased or used by the students in the different departments such as computers, science, music, sports and so on (Wood, et al., 2006, p. 67).

The student Hernandez refused to wear the RIFD badge on religious grounds stating that it was considered as a “mark of the beast” (Fitzpatrick, 2013). This girl is part of a growing minority who deliberately choose not to participate in biometric programs because of their individual beliefs (Woodward, et al., 2001, p. 21). They compare to the situation described by George Orwell in his prognostic novel 1984 where people are depicted as being de-humanised by being known by their specific numbers instead of their names. Other issues in this school surveillance through RIFD systems include personal privacy, civil liberty infringements, potential discrimination on race, creed or geographical origin, compromised religious ethics compromise, and redundant surveillance if these biometric data are stolen by unscrupulous elements(King, 2013).

The principles of the democratic state award the constitutional rights of privacy and data protection to all its citizens (Gutwirth & De Hert, 2008, p. 271). Creating profiles of people through their biometrics and behaviour patterns is called profiling. Profiling of students, as explained above is mainly meant to be used to monitor their attendance, interests, dietary and other patterns that serve to provide a remote feedback to the school authorities and parents who can then keep a look out for undesirable behaviours and prevent or interrupt such incidents for the protection and safety of the child. The local educational authorities can also keep watch on the types of food consumed by students in the school to add to healthy eating campaigns, internet access and the types of sites visited often, achievements and grades; drugs test results and so on. These cards have been seen as contributors to the students’ citizenship activities in the school and most students accept the constant surveillance as part of their community life (Wood, et al., 2006, p. 68).

If the necessity for the RIFD system is meant for creating a transparent environment where everyone is aware of all the personal details of everyone else or at least, some groups get this kind of comprehensive knowledge of other groups, it goes against the very ethos of the Western society that is largely individualistic and multicultural in nature (Koops & Leenes, 2006, p. 184). Moreover, when observed through the perspective of the transparent and opacity tools of privacy and data protection, it is seen that while opacity tools allow the authorities to make the regulations regarding what are the desirable and undesirable behaviours, these tools also infringe on the individual’s liberty, autonomy and identity-building (Gutwirth & De Hert, 2008, p. 1) which are very important in the formative years of a child’s life.

After the 9/11 incidents, the law enforcement the police and other law enforcement cadres in the US as well as in other countries which are at risk from terrorist attacks have shifted from the surveillance of actual perpetrators to those that they presume could potentially become terrorists or criminals. This is to prevent or forestall any more such incidents (Bloss, 2007, pp. 3-4). This type of surveillance in campuses and schools is mainly used for problems regarding juvenile misbehaviour and preventing the carrying, selling and using drugs and other illegal substances. However, The RFID tags place all students under this type of surveillance and not just those who are suspected to be involved in them. Once again, the loss of privacy and the freedom serve as questions to the validity of this type of surveillance.

People, such as Hernandez, are able to opt for not using the RFID tags. They have not become compulsory at all places. Nevertheless, there are still other issues in refusing to use the tags: just as in the case of Hernandez, these people could be marginalised and discriminated against. Hernandez was told by the court to either make use of the tag or change to another education board that does not require this compliance. She was not allowed to study in the school that she had chosen. This would bring in inferiority and stigmatisation in a society that is mostly compliant with such regulations (Kosta & Bowman, 2012) However, it must be taken into account that everyone has a right to privacy and this type of surveillance not only intrudes on it but also is capable of manipulating the person’s autonomy to deliberately make choices according to their wish and interest (Koops & Leenes, 2006, p. 184). But at the same time, people, including children are not averse to putting out their private information in public eye in their activities over the internet, such as chatting, emails, social networking, texting, mobile phone and so on. These activities are more dangerous than the monitoring of personal data by the school authorities and parents, but the children do not see them from that perspective (Koops & Leenes, 2006, p. 184). Misuse of data from these activities is often constructed by undesirable and criminal elements for targeting their victims.

This raises the question of whether current laws of the land are suitably prepared to tackle these weaknesses which in turn raises more questions regarding the categorisation of the data in order to screen the required facts, differences in data protection laws in different countries, classification of sensitive and less sensitive data, and personal information formatted to prevent revealing more than the expected information (De Hert, et al., 2009).

To be really effective, the present laws should include what are called the Ambient Law that concerns the legal norms to be incorporated into the technological infrastructure that could at the same time enhance both the privacy of the individual as well as the transparency in certain areas that can be chosen by the individual (Hildebrandt & Koops, 2010, p. 429). According to Koops and Leenes(2006, p. 188), there could be individual and collective responsibility features enforced on the legislatures to formulate privacy impact assessments similar to those on environment impacts of technology, which would aid in ruling out possible misuses of the technology. Additionally, enhancing privacy awareness among citizens and allowing only selected and necessary infringements on privacy would go a long way in preventing and containing such issues.

To summarise, RIFD surveillance system is here to stay, including in tracking and monitoring students. The widespread use of this technology has become a high profile business and being adopted everywhere as it is comparatively inexpensive, using less manpower by making use of remote monitoring. Students are monitored in and around the campus in their movements, activities, participations, and even their meals at the cafeteria. The data from such surveillance is used by the school authorities to keep track of attendance academic concentration and dietary habits.

However, all the students are subjected to this constant surveillance that may not be acceptable to some of them due to their personal beliefs, religion and so on. Such objectors to the RFID system could face marginalisation and/or discrimination from the others in the society and may even be forced to comply to avoid such inequity. RFID systems could also infringe on the perceived privacy and freedom of an individual and manipulate the freedom of choosing what one wishes.

Legal and policy issues in this regard would have to be made more transparent so that the authorities would be restricted to what personal details they can collect or use from the data on the RFID.


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