Texas test case: Do school IDs with locator chips violate religious freedom?

A Texas student has has sued her school district, which tried to transfer her when she refused to participate in program that introduced ID badges with locator chips.

If a school requires its students to wear IDs embedded with locator chips at all times, is that an infringement on their privacy? Or even, for some students, on their religious values?

Andrea Hernandez, a high school student in San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District, has sued the district over ID badges equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, which she and fellow students were required to wear this year as part of a pilot project. As an Evangelical Christian who believes that any sort of tracking technology is a “mark of the beast,” she believes it violates her religious freedoms.

The result has been an unusual alliance of Evangelical Christians and civil-liberties groups who claim that the technology is an overextension of technology into personal lives. It also points to rising concerns as locator technologies like RFID become more widespread.

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The technology is not new, though its use in schools has been somewhat limited. The Northside district began requiring some 4,000 students at two schools to wear the RFID-embedded IDs.

A prime motivator is financial. Texas, which last year cut school funding by nearly $5 billion, pays school districts based on how many students attend on any given day.

Often, students are marked absent because they’re not in their seats when roll is called, even though they might just be in the nurse’s office, says Pascual Gonzalez, communications director for the district.

The district paid $261,000 for the ID technology, but is hoping to get $1.7 million of additional state revenue over the year based on increased attendance numbers.

Beyond the attendance money, Mr. Gonzalez says, are safety concerns. “This is not a tracking pilot, this is a locating pilot,” he says. “When there’s an emergency in the school, if we have to lock down the school or evacuate a school or whatever, we will be able to find a student as we need to by entering a randomly assigned number.”

But that’s not the way that Andrea and her family see it. The school said she could wear an ID without any RFID technology, but Andrea refused – saying that wearing the badge, and implying her participation in the program, would still be “worshipping a false god.” The school reassigned her away from Jay, a magnet school, to her home high school, which doesn’t use the IDs, the week before Thanksgiving

A local judge has issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the school from transferring her, and the case is now in the courts.

“The future of privacy is at stake,” says John Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer and president of the Rutherford Institute, a civil rights group in Charlottesville, Va., that is backing Andrea in the case.

The religious concern among some Evangelicals is “a sincere belief,” Mr. Whitehead says. And he notes that the school stopped Andrea from handing out pamphlets after school explaining her views.

He is also concerned about the fact that, without an RFID card, Andrea would not have been able to vote for homecoming king and queen and might have had only limited access to extracurricular activities or places like the library, as those activities are intertwined with the smart-card technology.

“If you don’t opt in, then you’re punished,” says Whitehead.

Looking beyond this case, privacy-protection groups say they are concerned about the growing intrusion of RFID and other high-tech identification tools – including biometric palm scanners, which some schools in Maryland and elsewhere are using to help students pay for lunches more efficiently.

The use of tracking chips “desensitizes students from an early age to privacy violations," says Khaliah Barnes, a law council at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit public-interest group in Washington.

That’s one reason that Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican lawmaker in the Texas House of Representatives, has been trying for eight years to introduce bills that either ban RFID technology from schools or allow parents or students to opt out without any repercussion.

“I don’t like this technology being used with our children,” says Representative Kolkhorst. “This should be vetted publicly.”

Northside's Gonzalez tries to dispel misconceptions about what the program does.

“People may think we have personnel sitting in front of a bank of monitors looking at the whereabouts of 3,000 kids,” he says. “That’s impossible. We don’t have the staff to do that, and we don’t have a reason to do that…. If we need to find someone, we can locate them, but nobody sits there and tracks their whereabouts.”

To minimize hacking concerns, the cards are linked to a randomly assigned number – not the student’s ID number – and no sensitive information is stored with that number. And there are no card readers in bathrooms or locker rooms.

The program would also help administrators identify someone who doesn’t belong on campus, since they wouldn’t be wearing the ID lanyard. That’s why, says Gonzalez, it was important that Andrea wear an ID, even if it didn’t have the RFID chip in it.

Gonzalez notes that out of 4,000 students, only two – Andrea and one other family – have complained. For students in a public school, “the expectation of privacy is really low,” he says. 

While RFID technology in schools is still not particularly widespread, it’s growing, with a number of districts in California and Texas implementing it.

“It’s a rather sensitive topic in various school districts and communities,” says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, citing concerns about tracking.

But Mr. Stephens also notes that there are a lot of potential benefits, not only in helping locate students in an emergency but also in starting to track where violence or crimes occur in a school.

“A lot of this is about a fine balance, about the technology that is there and creating the kind of environment you want on the campus,” says Stephens.

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