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Buffalo children tracked by plastic cards with embedded RFID microchips

Wired News

Gary Stillman, the director of a small K-8 charter school in Buffalo, New York, is an RFID believer.

While privacy advocates fret that the embedded microchips will be used to track people surreptitiously, Stillman said he believes that RFID tags will make his inner city school safer and more efficient.

Stillman has gone whole-hog for radio-frequency technology, which his year-old Enterprise Charter School started using last month to record the time of day students arrive in the morning. In the next months, he plans to use RFID to track library loans, disciplinary records, cafeteria purchases and visits to the nurse's office. Eventually he'd like to expand the system to track students' punctuality (or lack thereof) for every class and to verify the time they get on and off school buses.

"That way, we could confirm that Johnny Jones got off at Oak and Hurtle at 3:22," Stillman said. "All this relates to safety and keeping track of kids.... Eventually it will become a monitoring tool for us."

Radio-frequency identification tags -- which have been hailed as the next-generation bar code -- consist of a microchip outfitted with a tiny antenna that broadcasts an ID number to a reader unit. The reader searches a database for the number and finds the related file, which contains the tagged item's description, or in the case of Enterprise Charter, the student's information.

Unlike bar codes, which must be manually scanned, RFID-tagged items can be read when they are in proximity to a reader unit, essentially scanning themselves. The school uses passive RFID tags that are activated when radio waves from the reader reach the chip's antenna. (Active RFID tags incorporate a battery that constantly broadcasts the chip's ID number and are much more expensive.)

The technology has raised a ruckus in recent months, as companies such as Wal-Mart move from bar codes to RFID to track merchandise and libraries place the chips in books to streamline loans. Privacy advocates worry that the technology will be used to track people without their knowledge.

But for Stillman, whose public school is located in a gritty Buffalo neighborhood, RFID is about accounting for the whereabouts of his charges and streamlining functions.

"Before, everything was done manually -- each teacher would take attendance and send it down to the office," he said. "Now it's automatic, and it saves us a lot of time."

The charter school's 422 students wear small plastic cards around their necks that have their photograph, name and grade printed on them, and include an embedded RFID chip. As the children enter the school, they approach a kiosk where a reader activates the chip's signal and displays their photograph. The students touch their picture, and the time of their entry into the building is recorded in a database. A school staffer oversees the check-in process.

The school spent $25,000 on the ID system. The $3 ID tags students wear around their necks at all times incorporate the same Texas Instruments smart labels used in the wristbands worn by inmates at the Pima County jail in Texas. Similar wristbands are used to track wounded U.S. soldiers and POWs in Iraq and by the Magic Waters theme park in Illinois for cashless purchases.

But the Buffalo school is believed to be the first facility to use the technology to identify and track children.

Stillman was tipped off to RFID by the vice principal's husband, who works at a Buffalo Web design studio that is partnered with Intuitek, the company that designed the school's system.

Stillman originally wanted the RFID tags sewn directly into the students' uniforms, but teachers feared that the kids might simply swap uniforms to dupe the system, so he decided to have students wear the picture tags around their necks instead.

Privacy experts expressed dismay at the idea of using RFID tags on children.

"I think the Buffalo experiment is getting children ready for the brave new world, where people are watched 24/7 in the name of security," said Richard Smith, an Internet privacy and security consultant. "My main concern is that once we start carrying around RFID-tagged items on our person such as access cards, cell phones, loyalty cards, clothing, etc., we can be tracked without our knowledge or permission by a network of RFID readers attached to the Internet."

Lee Tien, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation -- who has vehemently opposed a San Francisco Public Library Commission plan to use the chips to track its inventory -- was also critical of the program.

"In general, all person-location-tracking technologies raise privacy issues, from hiding beepers on people's cars or in people's clothing to video surveillance," Tien said. "Insecure location-tracking technologies raise the further question of who is tracking, as well as who has access to any tracking records kept by the system."

Intuitek President David M. Straitiff said his company built privacy protections into the school's RFID system, including limiting the reading range of the kiosks to less than 20 inches and making students touch the kiosk screen instead of passively being scanned by it. He pooh-poohed the notion that the system would be abused.

"(It's) the same as swiping a mag-strip card for access control, or presenting a photo ID badge to a security guard, both of which are commonplace occurrences," Straitiff said.

Additionally, Stillman said that the RFID-linked databases would require separate passwords to access students' disciplinary, attendance, health, library and cafeteria records.

"It's as private as anything else can be when your information is stored on a server," he said.

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