WASHINGTON, D.C. – A growing number of schools are using special tracking chips embedded in student ID cards or biometric scanners to track students, and the new technology is making many lawmakers nervous about its privacy implications.
The relatively new tracking technology allows schools to more accurately follow student attendance, lunch purchases and students who ride buses, but lawmakers in many states have banned specific types of student data collection over privacy concerns, Governing.com reports.
“This year, Florida became the first state to ban the use of biometric identification in its schools. Kansas said biometric data cannot be collected without student or parental consent. New Hampshire, Colorado and North Carolina said the state education departments cannot collect and store biometric data as part of student records.
“New Hampshire and Missouri lawmakers said schools can’t require students to use ID cards equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that can track them. The new laws are similar to one Oregon passed last year and what Rhode Island lawmakers passed in 2009,” according to the news site.
Of the 110 bills considered in 36 states this year to address student data collection, 39 targeted biometric data specifically, and 14 of those bills passed, according to information from the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign cited by Governing.
At the same time, many private companies are quickly recruiting schools and have amassed a large clientele over roughly the last decade. More than 1,000 school districts in 40 states currently use biometric identification – from reading portions of student fingerprints, to iris scanners, to palm scanners – to track student lunch accounts, student bus travel, attendance and other activities, Jay Fry, CEO of biometric firm identiMetrics, told Governing.
“It’s more secure from a privacy standpoint than a student ID, which has a name, picture and school on it – when lost, can be picked up by someone,” said Fry, a former Illinois middle school teacher.
A number of other school districts also employ RFID, or radio frequency identification, technology to track students. RFID chips are typically embedded in student ID cards or tags that are read by passive scanners at school doors, buses, or school events. RFID technology also allows school officials to limit access to certain areas, according to the news site.
The RFID student badges are also more secure than traditional student ID cards, Security Industry Association government relations manager Elizabeth Hunger told Governing.
“No one else can read it,” she said. “They’d only get a number if they did.”
Regardless of the benefits, however, Missouri state Sen. Ed Emery believes “there’s a ‘Big Brother’ quality to” RFID and biometric student data systems, and helped to push through a law that restricts how schools in his state use RFID technology.
“This is a technology that is very difficult to limit and secure,” Emery said. “If a private company wants to do it, fine. But it’s not something you should mandate on children.”
Florida state Sen. Dorothy Hukill also believes the technology is “an overreach,” and sponsored legislation approved in May that bans biometric data collection of Florida students.
“You don’t need to collect biometric information to buy a hot dog in the school cafeteria or check out a library book,” she said.
Many parents seem to be on the same page, as evidenced by the backlash in districts that have attempted to implement these types of student tracking systems.
Parents of students in Massachusetts’ North Adams Public Schools, for example, raised a ruckus when school officials moved to implement fingerprint scanners for cafeteria lunch lines, EAGnews reported.
The scanners are intended to make lunch lines faster, and student transactions more accurate, but several parents obviously believe those benefits do not outweigh their privacy concerns.
“No child should have to have a body part scanned to get a meal! There was no problems with those swipe cards that we were never made aware of,” a North Adams parent posted to Facebook, adding that she would send her child’s lunch before allowing a finger scan.
“Let us not allow our children to allow privacy to become a thing of the past. Our duty is to educate and protect them, not to catalog them like merchandise,” parent Cara Roberts wrote in a letter to the mayor, according to iBerkshires.com.
“Our duty is to teach them to protect and care for their bodies. What message are we sending when we tell them their body is a means of identification, a tool for others to use to track them?”
Texas state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, who has sponsored legislation to limit RFID technology in schools in recent years, summed up the underlying question about the new student tracking systems for Governing.
“The question is: Should the government be able to force a parent to have their children tracked in the same exact way that warehouse pallets, prisoners and migratory animals are monitored?” she questioned.