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Student Location Tracking Has Troubling Implications

Some schools are tracking students’ precise locations on school grounds using name badges embedded with Radio Frequency Identification chips.

December 5, 2012

In Harry Potter, the young wizard and his friends are bequeathed a Marauder’s Map.  The map allows them to precisely track the location of friends and enemies – as long as the users solemnly swear they are up to no good. 

School districts in Texas and California have implemented a real-world (or Muggle-world) version of the Marauder’s Map: some schools are tracking students’ precise locations on school grounds using name badges embedded with Radio Frequency Identification (or RFID) chips. 

The program earned national attention recently when a student at a science and engineering magnet academy in San Antonio refused to wear the badge (either with or without the tracking chip); after she was removed from the school as punishment, she and her parents sued. San Antonio is just one of many school districts that use the program to claim precious state dollars based on attendance; using the chips to track students on school grounds, they can report students as present even if they are not in the classroom. 

There are a number of troubling implications of this tracking plan. The first is the risk of training young people for a police state.  Secondary school administrators and teachers have a critical responsibility for keeping their young charges safe, and the First Amendment rights of elementary and high school students can be curtailed in ways that would not pass muster in college and beyond.  But a school is not a prison.  Its obligations include educating the next generation of competent participants in our democracy: future taxpayers, voters, elected representatives, and judges.  Teaching students at a young age to be cautious about whom they associate with, where they seek a quiet moment, and what student groups they join, lest they be remotely identified at the touch of a button, is a poor lesson for the future leaders of a democracy.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests they are already learning that lesson. The San Antonio district’s RFID program supplements the magnet school’s 200 already-existing surveillance cameras. “The kids are used to being monitored,” district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez told Wired magazine.

This civic burden is ultimately likely to fall most heavily upon poor and minority communities. As others have noted, chronic underfunding of public schools is a genuine crisis, and schools have a responsibility to recoup every dollar they can.  And indeed, schools in poor communities may face security challenges that militate in favor of more stringent student oversight. 

But wealthy parents who object to acclimating their children to a surveillance state have other options: they may choose private school or intervene with their school board or legislature. Parents in poorer communities, by contrast, will inevitably have far less capacity to seek other alternatives or to advocate on their own behalf. With the “schoolhouse to jailhouse” track already well documented, it is perhaps cynically brilliant to prepare already marginalized students for their future lives as prisoners. 

Moreover, any time our sensitive personal information (and information about where we go is increasingly recognized as being among the most sensitive) is available to an arm of the government, the next question should be: what happens to the data? 

A letter from the San Antonio school district introducing the program explains that the cards will automatically transmit students’ location (via a randomly-generated serial number) to electronic readers. Neither the letter nor the district’s dedicated website describes whether or how location information is saved in the system. And while the letter adds that students will not be tracked off campus, the parameters of the current system are no guarantee of the capabilities of a future system. (This is setting aside the additional concerns about how easy the system is to trick or override in a variety of ways.) 

This capture and sharing of information is already playing out in a variety of realms.  State departments of motor vehicles hold a wealth of valuable biometric information; as facial recognition technologies improve, the DMVs are under increasing pressure to share that information with the FBI for its own biometric databases. Similarly, both states and federal agencies are establishing networks of license plate readers that track the movements of drivers on public roads; there are no consistent retention rules for that information, at least some of which is funneled to federal fusion centers.  And another kind of location information – that gleaned from the cellphones of both criminal suspects and the innocent people in their vicinity – is increasingly accessible to law enforcement, with rules about its collection, retention, and sharing only spottily available and often inconsistent from state to state. 

Much of this activity arises from the post-9/11 mandate to share critical information. Building dossiers on innocent Americans, however, is both counterproductive and historically ill-advised. In addition to adding to the proverbial haystack of information, the mass collection and centralization of innocuous information, as the Church Committee observed nearly four decades ago, “creates a temptation to use it for improper purposes, threatens to ‘chill’ the exercise of First Amendment rights, and is inimical to the privacy of citizens.”

It is enticing to use sophisticated technology to solve a short-term problem.  But schools, parents, and legislators committed to a robust democracy should pause before employing a technological solution to the problem of school funding.  And we should all demand to know exactly how sensitive information about us is being housed, kept, and shared.