US school tries to suspend student for refusing to wear RFID tracking badge

Filed Under: Law & order, Privacy

RFID tag. Image from ShutterstockA Texas judge in the US has granted a temporary restraining order that prevents a San Antonio high school from suspending a student for refusing to wear a new, mandatory student ID card embedded with an RFID tracking chip.

A one-year pilot test of the tracking IDs was rolled out in October with two intentions: 1) keeping tabs on students' whereabouts at all times and 2) making money.

The new system will cost $500,000, but school administrators have said that they're hoping to increase attendance by tracking the students, which could help them to score up to $1.7 million from the state government.

As Wired notes, the district's budget is tied to average daily attendance, as are most state-financed schools. For every student missing from his seat for morning roll call, the district misses out on one student's worth of daily funding.

The schools, as the school district's administrators told parents in letters explaining the program, have no way of knowing for sure if students are in school—hence the need for tracking.

The Rutherford Institute, which advocates for civil liberties, filed a petition [PDF] on behalf of suspended student Andrea Hernandez and on Wednesday announced that a district court judge has tentatively blocked her suspension, pending further hearings this week.

The Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, launched the program, dubbed the "Student Locator Project", as a pilot program affecting some 4,200 students at Jay High School and Jones Middle School.

The schools already have 290 surveillance cameras trained on the students.

The SmartID card badges kick that surveillance up a notch with embedded RFID tracking chips that actively broadcast a signal at all times and cannot be turned off.

Student badge

Students are required to wear the badge on a lanyard around their necks. The badges identify students with their names and photos, via a bar code associated with each student’s Social Security number, and with an RFID chip that monitors his or her movements on campus from the minute they get there to the time they head home.

Students need the ID card to use the library or cafeteria, to vote in school elections, to attend certain school functions, and to purchase tickets to extracurricular activities. Hernandez claims that teachers are, in some cases, requiring use of the badge to use the bathroom.

School officials hope to eventually expand the program to encompass 112 schools and 100,000 students throughout the district.

The suspended student is a San Antonio sophomore at John Jay High School's Science and Engineering Academy who's refused to comply from the get-go.

Instead, Hernandez has, for reasons having to do with religion and privacy, chosen to wear her old, non-chipped badge and to pass out flyers explaining her decision.

She told Infowars:

"I feel it’s an invasion of my religious beliefs... I feel it's the implementation of the Mark of the Beast. It’s also an invasion of my privacy and my other rights."

The district notified Hernandez that they would block her attendance unless she wears the badge around her neck. Instead, beginning Monday, she would have been forced to attend another of the district's high schools that hasn't yet deployed the RFID tags.

School officials have refused to verify Hernandez's identity with the old, conventional student ID card, in spite of having assured students that the old cards would be valid for four years. This has prevented Hernandez from voting for Homecoming King and Queen.

In Hernandez's case, at least, school officials have been willing to let her attend school if she maintained even the appearance of compliance, offering to quietly remove the tracking chip from her card if she agrees to wear the badge without a battery or chip. They also stipulated that she would have to stop public dissent with the program.

She has refused.

John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, called the court's temporary restraining order of this suspension a "good first step".

But, he said, there's still a lot work to be done when it comes to resisting the mindset that "everyone needs to be monitored and controlled" - particularly when such a mandate is motivated by money:

"There is something fundamentally disturbing about this school district's insistence on steamrolling students into complying with programs that have nothing whatsoever to do with academic priorities and everything to do with fattening school coffers."

"Regimes in the past have always started with the schools, where they develop a compliant citizenry. These 'Student Locator' programs are ultimately aimed at getting students used to living in a total surveillance state where there will be no privacy, and wherever you go and whatever you text or email will be watched by the government.”

Some parents have called the tracking chips an invasion of privacy akin to tracking cattle, and a coalition of privacy and civil liberties organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union has called for a moratorium on the technology.

The Rutherford Institute's petition to halt Hernandez's suspension alleged that the school's actions violate the student's rights under Texas's Religious Freedom Act.

It also charged the school with violating the 1st and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, which forbid, respectively, hampering freedom of religious exercise and speech, and abridging liberty.

Microwave oven. Image from ShutterstockOn my initial writeup of this program, multiple readers suggested that a quick spin in the microwave would be the easiest solution for Hernandez or others who find mandatory tracking badges intrusive.

Such a step would, however, be akin to the school district's aims, as it puts a higher value on compliance than on the actual, stated purpose of increasing attendance.

As it is, there are multiple chipping programs now in use or proposed in schools throughout the country.

From Wired's coverage:

  • A federally funded preschool in Richmond, California, began embedding RFID chips in students' clothing in 2010.
  • An elementary school outside of Sacramento, California, scrubbed a plan in 2005 amid a parental uproar.
  • A Houston, Texas, school district began using the chips to monitor students on 13 campuses in 2004 for the same reasons the Northside Independent School District implemented the program. Northside is mulling adopting the program for its other 110 schools.

Rather than nuking the cards, I believe that these chipping programs should instead be legislated into oblivion.

Only then will nuking the cards be a truly satisfying action.


RFID tag and microwave oven images from Shutterstock.

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41 Responses to US school tries to suspend student for refusing to wear RFID tracking badge

  1. DanMAn · 695 days ago

    Seriously a bad idea. First you have attendance that the teachers are suppose to be doing everyday. (Trust but Verify) you have the umpteen cameras verifying that they are in the building.... So the RFID card would be the third verification!!!! That can be circumvented by giving it to a friend or slipping it in someone else s bag!!!! Once in the bag or given to a friend. the school would have no clue of who is in or out of school.

    Not to mention to read those tags there needs to be power. Either in the reader or the badge itself. If it is at he AP how much radiation or dangerous waves/ radiaiton

    • So next comes the logical step of embedding it into a person's skin so that it functions in its intended way, moving with the body.

  2. Machin Shin · 695 days ago

    I just find myself remembering the "Better off Ted" episode where they gathered up a bunch of badges and launched them off on a rocket to confuse the computer system that then thought 30 so employees all crammed into a rocket and launched into the air.

    Now the really stupid thing is that the people in charge of this school system are apparently stupid enough to think the students wouldn't do things like that....... If you can't keep track of the kids now then no amount of tagging them with RFID is going to help. You end up running into guys like me, I would not skip class, but you better believe my stupid badge would go all kinds of crazy places.

    • CDB · 694 days ago

      "Confound it, Mathers! That Shin kid has been holed up in the bathroom, spinning in circles for hours now! What have you been putting in the cafeteria food?!"

  3. John H · 695 days ago

    They are goofy enough to teach dinosaurs and people roamed the earth at the same time, this is not a surprise,

  4. Bunny · 695 days ago

    This is the first time I've read of someone actually DOING SOMETHING to protest wearing one of these... I learned of the RFID via the page of a VERY fringe new religious movement called the Universe People or Cosmic People of Light Powers... they're a Czech based group that included the RFID in there works... apparently part of some alien mind control... (sounds a bit silly).

    This sounds exactly like what they say... no aliens here, but the "I/We Will Not Be Chipped" phrase is there.

  5. ---- · 695 days ago

    Stack of RFID Cards is about 100 bucks...clone it, then toss it into every vent you can find. until there are a thousand of you in attendance...

  6. Cheryle · 695 days ago

    I totally disagree with this.Children are not pets to have to be monitored.I would not allow my child to wear this.What if some of the teachers were petafiles and knew when your child went to the restroom.A ID card is fine but not with soc sec # ect on it,The kids could clock in and out of school but not totally be tracked.

    • John Smith · 694 days ago

      They have tracking tags with chips for Austic children and the elderly, especially those with dementia, so they can found when they wander off.. So what's the problem??

  7. Dantiumpro · 695 days ago

    A certain well respected historical figure in US politics commented about the virtues of Liberty and what a poor deal it is to exchange this prize for the promise of security. This appears to be one of those situations albeit framed in terms of school attendance: "Are our children where we think they are?".

    I would add that proportionality is our modern-day gatekeeper for such exchanges and the above seems to fail that test miserably. Next we'll be monitoring school dinners to ensure they're properly digested - an unmonitored potato is a bad potato.

    Thanks, but my future heirs and I will take our chances.

  8. DanInTampa · 695 days ago

    Microwaving one or two badges would just be an annoyance to those who did it. That is, unlocking doors, bathroom, lunch counter, etc. wouldn't work. But if several dozen participated, it would in effect be a larger 'denial of service' attack, with all of the created bottlenecks & log-jams. Also, the inevitable 'replacement costs' once all of those 'defective' badges were discovered would probably bring the program to a slow end.

    In order for a program such as this to work, there has to be some sort of reward incentive to foster participation or 'opting-in'. Human nature says that any forced compliance will be met with resistance, and ultimately a black market for avoidance, sometimes legal, usually profitable. See: prohibition, taxes, 55mph speed limit, war on drugs, healthcare, minimum wage.

  9. alpha4centauri · 695 days ago

    Schools usually have one group of students that cuts class, and another that attends reliably. By putting the electronic monitoring system in charge, it will be much more interesting for the responsible students to find ways to fool it. They're going to be especially keen to deactivate friends' tags the minute they're left unattended. If the school tries to use that as proof of attendance, they will end up losing money by "proving" students who attended school weren't there. (BTW, what happens to these things if you pass them over the RFD deactivator at a drug store checkout counter?)

  10. DanInTampa · 695 days ago

    Microwaving one or two badges would just be an annoyance to those who did it. That is, unlocking doors, bathroom, lunch counter, etc. wouldn't work. But if several dozen participated, it would in effect be a larger 'denial of service' attack, with all of the created bottlenecks & log-jams. Also, the inevitable 'replacement costs' once all of those 'defective' badges were discovered would probably bring the program to a slow end.

  11. Lisa Vaas · 694 days ago

    DaninTampa, you're right: destroying or damaging the badge itself primarily inconveniences the student who needs it for the range of activities noted: buying lunch, using the library, etc. It doesn't do anything to dislodge the mindset that it's OK to monitor a group of people to this extent. That's why I'm glad to see this student, with the backing of her family, stand against it in the courts. It's the mindset that we need to examine and, if it makes sense, deprive it of mandating such programs, not just that the badges should be destroyed.

  12. Steve · 694 days ago

    I am completely reminded of a story by Cory Doctoroff - Little Brother has RFID chips introduced to track students resulting in the state criminalising them. Check it out.

  13. Dan D · 694 days ago

    While I applaud this student for standing up to this kind of tracking, there is one little thing that throws some doubt into the story. She did an interview with Infowars. Trustworthy isn't a word I would use to describe this fringe outfit, and I would question the real motivation of someone who would deal with them.

  14. Jack Wilborn · 694 days ago

    I'm surprised nobody has come up with a RFID proof bag to put it in. Then they would be invisible except when it was out of the bag!

  15. sad day · 694 days ago

    Here is a thought: what if the wrong person had access to the data? For example, if a bully could find a student with this technology- and make sure the student is all alone -- it would make the student easy prey for the bully. Or another scenario is that data gets used for identity theft.

    This is definitely not a good idea: the damage far outweighs any usefulness.

  16. toney · 694 days ago

    Mother Russia has moved to Texas

  17. Ian · 694 days ago

    Has anyone read 1984? It was meant as science fiction, not an instruction book.

  18. John Smith · 694 days ago

    Whats the difference?? Many major corporations have ID badges for their employees. You have to wear them to work at your job. To access your office, safety , etc. It is part of the workplace security. And if you don't wear it you don't work. And you don't get PAID... . School is these kids " job" until they graduate and join the workforce... So what's the big woop? We accept it as workplace security, but we don't care about the safety of our school kids?? Your mindset is in question.. Maybe where you live, in New Zealand , things are safer.. But the rest of the world is not a safe place.. Keeping track of students activities might have stopped Columbine... Or Virginia Tech... So don't be too quick to judge... Just sayin...

    • Mike · 688 days ago

      That's true we MAKE THE CHOICE to work in a place that has ID badges to access the office etc. But that is our choice not the governments.

  19. Bacchanalia · 694 days ago

    I have been wrapping my new passport in aluminium foil thinking this will obscure the RFID chip. Am I fooling myself?

    • Unless you take your passport with you everywhere it's kind of pointless. Storing it in a safe that is metal / lead lined will kill the signal. Their has to be a reader near by for anything to be tracked. These students could also just get some of the rfid blocking wallets and put the badge inside of that.

    • Randy · 693 days ago

      No, you are not fooling yourself. Signals are already very weak and will not pass through metal shielding. Even some open mesh, such as a honeycomb or circle pattern, can sometimes be just as effective. It depends largely on the RFID frequency used and how tight the mesh pattern.

  20. Mike · 694 days ago

    "The SmartID card badges kick that surveillance up a notch with embedded RFID tracking chips that actively broadcast a signal at all times and cannot be turned off."

    Is this true? Do these devices have a battery or some other power source built in (nuclear perhaps)? My understanding of RFID technology requires a reader of some sort to send a power signal to the RFID and activate a retrievable signal back. That is not actively broadcasting a signal but rather a reactive signal from a query signal transmitted to it.

    • John Smith · 694 days ago

      Mike.. These cards have NO battery... RFID cards user scanners to read any card that comes into scanning range.. So the student swipes his card at the library door and gets let in.. Or swipes it to charge his school lunch or to check out library books . Years ago we used lunch tokens, milk tokens, a paper milk ticket, or a paper lunch ticket.. And we used library cards.. It's a technology change...how different is it from the nurse who swipes his/he ID badge and enters a code to open the door to wheel you into the ER after your car wreck?? Would you all eschew all the advances in technology ?? Or just what you don't like?? We live longer and better lives because of technological advances... how many of them are you willing to give up??

    • David Pottage · 693 days ago

      No not a radioisotope power source!

      I think 'Actively broadcasting' is just a bit of sloppy reporting. You are almost certainly correct that the tag only sends a signal when it is probed by a reader and is probably powered by the probing signal. Modern microchips are very fugal in their electricity consumption, so if you have a decent sized antena, then you can get enough energy to run the RFID chip for a few microseconds just from the radio pulse that probe the thing.

      In some ways it is similar to a crystal radio set from the 1920, that could extract enough power from the radio signal to drive a set of headphones.

      Probing antenas can be placed arround the building, each with an effective range of 10 feet or so, so that the system knows who has passed through each door

      • Lisa Vaas · 693 days ago

        My understanding is that the badges have batteries, but I assumed that based on the school district's offer to remove the battery from Andrea's card if she promised to shut up and wear it.

  21. Sootie · 694 days ago

    I dont use social media for this reason, I hate having people know anything about me or where I am, I would have been in agreeance with this student if they had tried to impliment this while I was at school.

    • Alex · 691 days ago

      The people on social media knows nothing about you, the scripts that are tracking you and are used for targeting the publicity, yes.

  22. Marc · 694 days ago

    Ah America, 'Home of the free' ha ha ha. This is just the first step to implanted IDs for everyone, big brother has truly arrived.

  23. Mike, your understanding of RFID cards is correct, as was mine until a few moments ago.
    I was not aware of self-powered RFID cards (Active RFID) until I came across the article at this link: &lt ;http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/technology-article.asp?artnum=21>.

  24. If I was attending her school, I'd be right there with her, protesting it.
    I don't want to be tracked.

  25. I'm surprised no one has posted what info these badges contain, also most rfid badges have a permanent non-changeable unique id.

    However, it would be simple enough to a large portion of students to simply not wear the badges. No way a school will remove several hundred students and risk losing all that money. Bottom line for me the students are going about the protest all wrong. Instead of holding up signs "While wearing the stupid badge" why not just refuse to wear it all together as a group. 200+ cameras is plenty. To me it seams they are more concerned with numbers and not education. Also parents that are outraged also have alternatives, throw the badge away or take your kids out of that school. Homeschooling is always an option for some.

  26. Randy · 693 days ago

    "offering to quietly remove the tracking chip from her card if she agrees to wear the badge without a battery or chip"
    Sounds like a reasonable agreement to me. I think the real problem is typical teenage rebellion.

    • John Smith · 693 days ago

      I would agree with Randy.. The school offered a solution that the "offended" girl refused.. It is not about technology... It's really a matter of extreme right wing paranoia that some religious groups practice here.. Same as the "offended" atheist girl on the east coast who protested the banner painted on the wall... Painted By kids now old enough to be her great grandparents.. . Kids here today have no respect for their elders . As for her religious objections .. Hogwash.. If She dosent participate.. expell her .. let her be homeschooled. This is not a "religious" issue any more that it is a "privacy" issue.. This has been blown out of proportion by an angry child and siezed upon by the tech media, with its sometimes overactive Orwellian obsessions, The issue here is technology.. Which can be either good or bad , depending on its use.. This is not bad use. Tracking kids during their school day is reasonable and prudent. As for the problems cited by posters here. None have occurred. I think we should withhold judgement until there is some empirical data to study on whether this tech is good or bad.

  27. Krista · 693 days ago

    There's just no way to know if the students are here? WTF?!?! Ya know, when I was in school, they took attendance, and that's how they knew. I'm 27. This wasn't that long ago!!! I mean really.... I would never allow my child to wear this. This isn't an internment camp, they aren't lab rats, they aren't pets, they aren't something for you to exploit for money, they are CHILDREN. The chips in the ID tag are pointless anyway. Kids will destroy them, put them other places (Hey I can leave mine in the bathroom and then just leave campus right? Claim stomach flu!), learn how to hack them or something like that. This isn't fool proof and it way oversteps the schools bounds. These kids shouldn't be wearing them at all and more parents should stand up for their children on this. If it were me, my child would find another school to attend and they'd still lose that money they were hoping for. UGH this just sickens me....

  28. Randy · 692 days ago

    Student A could clone student B's ID card. He could then shield his own card (or leave it in his homeroom desk) while he takes the cloned ID card and goes around the school stealing things, breaking open the cash box in the school cafeteria, etc. Student A gets the loot while student B gets the blame.

  29. sdgadsgsdg · 504 days ago

    Microwave >:D

  30. Anthoney I · 449 days ago

    To top it off, with all the cameras installed they could easily use some form of facial recognition software to tell which students were in attendance. They have all the students photos on file and the software used is pretty darn accurate. No badges and no counting required by the teachers. Whatever happened to good old fashion roll calling? With an iPad and a little software it would almost as good and they would not be treating the kids like cattle....

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.