Tag, You’re It.

Heaven knows I’ve joked about it from time to time, but my black Orwellian humor is becoming reality, it seems. California’s Brittan Elementary School made the news this week when parents protested the school’s implementation of a test program requiring its students to wear name badges containing RFID chips.

RFID chips are tiny gizmos (some amazingly tiny) that broadcast a unique signal, usually when hit with a query signal from a powered transceiver. At its simplest, a transceiver sends out a signal over a certain range, a sort of digital “who’s there?” and any RFID tags in the area gleefully chirp back their appropriate identifying information. Forms of these tags are used to track stuff—books, inventory items, livestock, baggage, things like that. The big advantage is this: rather than, say, having to unpack a giant crate of stuff to see what’s inside it, I can wiggle a handheld transciever in the direction of a giant crate of stuff (assuming said stuff has been marked with RFID tags), and the stuff inside will tell me what it is. Handy-dandy.

Now imagine being able to do that to a classroom of kids. A classroom of you.

Blip, you’re present. No blip, you’re absent. It could even happen as you walked through the door. Heck, blip two minutes after the bell rings, and you’re tardy. No need to mark anything; your blip shoots right off to the office, where it’s recorded with all the other incoming blips without anyone having to lift a pencil.

You leave the room during class, blip there you go. Where? Blip. Oh, there you are—passing the Science hall scanner at 9:03:30. Where now? Blip. Main hallway scanner, 9:04:02. Blip. Restroom scanner, 9:04:55. Blip. Main hallway scanner, 9:06:03. Science hallway scanner? … Blip. 9:10:25. Ha! Must’ve stopped to talk to somebody. Blip. Back in the room, 9:10:50, safe and sound. Your restroom excursion, tagged and filed.

There’s so much to say about this, I’m not even going to try to do it justice here, just so you know. Maybe you can discuss in the comments.

As with every invasive implementation of technology, there are always benefits: the ability to keep more accurate attendance records easily, protection from vandalism, some perceived improvement in “student safety.” The benefits must be balanced with the level of privacy loss, however.

Frankly, I’m at a loss to see how such detailed student tracking provides any significant improvement in student safety, which would always be the big selling point with any such technology. As far as other benefits go, a blipping tag probably sends the wrong message. One outraged dad in California has the best take on that: “There is a way to make kids safer without making them feel like a piece of inventory,” he’s quoted as saying. “Are we trying to bring them up with respect and trust, or tell them that you can’t trust anyone, you are always going to be monitored, and someone is always going to be watching you?”

Of course, there are those that argue that students in a school don’t have the same rights as adults in society. Certainly, we go through school with all kinds of “training wheels” on, but school is also a place where we ostensibly start learning to exercise the responsibility that comes with living in a free society. If we grow up in a police state, where every move is watched and monitored, what happens when we get out?

Others mention that this is the beginning of a dreaded “slippery slope.” Conjectures run in all different ways—for instance, considering that these tags are worn on lanyards around the neck, there’s already some potential for hijinks, yes? Someone decides to lay out, for instance, and his buddies cart his tag around to classes with them, in pockets and backpacks, so the teachers who’ve gotten so used to not actually looking at their students mark him present all day. Or how about: Hey, let’s grab Bobby’s tag and tie it to that dog that’s hanging around the back door…Blip. Bobby’s just gone AWOL, at least until that mess gets sorted out…

I’m sure you guys could think of many more “fun with blip-tag” activities than I can—I’ve grown rusty. 😉 The point is, although I’m sure there would be some pretty stiff penalties for tag-mischief, it would, no doubt, occur. How long before we start considering ways to prevent it? I’m sure the old RFID-tag-under-the-skin trick wouldn’t come up seriously, but we already do it for our beloved pets

Once we have generations of youngsters who have grown up being tagged and tracked, can’t we just continue tagging and tracking them as adults? For “safety reasons” of course—the benefit to society would be amazing. And the potential for misuse and abuse would be gut-wrenching.

A talking head interviewed on CNN this past week said something like, “If there is a slippery slope with this issue, this [RFID tags for students] isn’t it.” Isn’t the problem with slippery slopes the fact that you don’t often realize you’ve stepped on one until it’s too late?

The principal of Brittan Elementary School has been quoted as saying, “You know what this comes down to? I believe junior high students want to be stylish. This is not stylish.” So. There you go. :ponder:

Here’s some further reading: 

» Original documents concerning the controversy: Electronic Frontier Foundation

» Brittan Elementary School: Q&A on ID Badge Holders (Possibly more information to come? My design students might notice that their board minutes are recorded in Comic Sans for some reason. I’ll say no more.)

» The original story from the AP news wires: ABC News

» Another feature story: Wired.com

» A (sometimes heated) discussion: Slashdot.com

Your thoughts? DISCUSS!