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US judge rules for Texas school district in RFID tracking case

The case highlighted the intersection of technology and issues of religious and personal freedom as well as the right to privacy.

Tracking teenagers at school with high-tech chips has come to a head in Texas.

A federal judge there last week ruled against a teenager who had been suspended from high school for refusing to wear a radio frequency ID chip around her neck.

The case highlighted the intersection of technology and issues of religious and personal freedom as well as the right to privacy.

Last fall, as part of a trial that could someday include 112 schools and nearly 100,000 students, Northside Independent School District in San Antonio issued students at two of its campuses new badges with an embedded RFID chip in order to track their locations.

Unlike passive chips that transmit data only when scanned by a reader, these chips have batteries and broadcast a constant signal so they can track students' locations on school property. Andrea Hernandez was one student who took issue with the badge, saying she had religious and privacy concerns and refused to wear it. Since then, her case went to court but now a judge has ruled against her.

The school had said in recent months that Hernandez could wear a chip-less badge, but her father said if she did so it would appear as if she approved of the program, which she does not.

"The First Amendment does not protect such concerns," U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia wrote in court documents (PDF). "The accommodation offered by the District is not only reasonable it removes plaintiff's religious objection from legal scrutiny all together. Plaintiff is not likely to succeed on the merits of her free exercise claim under the First Amendment."

Money was a primary reason the school district implemented the tracking badges. The two schools have a high truancy rate and by proving kids are on campus the district can garner an extra $2 million in state funding by cracking down on truancy.

There's no doubt that education will be more effective if more students are attending class. Also, if state fiscal support remains high, the district certainly has more resources with which to educate students more effectively. And the Northside website that provides information about the "'Smart' Student ID Cards project" makes a reasonable point. "Our students' parents expect that we always know where their children are in our schools," it says.

Yet people continue to voice privacy and legal concerns.

In August, several privacy advocacy groups put out a position paper (PDF) that argued that RFID tracking in schools violates students' rights to free speech and association because the technology tracks not only an individual's location, but it can monitor people who congregate together.

The paper also maintains that mandating that students wear RFID chips conditions them to accept a Big Brother world.

"Young people learn about the world and prepare for their futures while in school. Tracking and monitoring them in their development may condition them to accept constant monitoring and tracking of their whereabouts and behaviors. This could usher in a society that accepts this kind of treatment as routine rather than an encroachment of privacy and civil liberties," the paper says.

Today, RFID chips are embedded in a variety of things, including passports, security passes, and store inventory, and can be used to do things like track livestock.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the school district's implementation of the RFID badges constitutes "stalking."

"We have safety and privacy concerns about use of RFID technology on students in schools," Dotty Griffith, the ACLU's public education director, said in a statement. "The technology was originally designed for shipping goods and cattle, not taking roll at school, thus RFID chips make the perfect stalking device. Because the technology is easy to acquire, it is vulnerable to hacking which could allow someone outside the school to monitor a student's off-campus whereabouts if they obtained the student's tracking number."

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