In the Debate Over RFID Tracking, Children are The Testing Ground

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RFIDs are just little coils of wire that help us track things, but what happens when we start tracking ourselves?

RFID tags are already embedded in millions of products you buy...and your children could be next. In the ongoing debate over privacy and surveillance, Radio Frequency ID tags occupy a very interesting position. They are invaluable when tracking goods, allowing modern corporations like Wal-Mart to manage their inventories quickly and cheaply. If applied to humans, such ID tags could help with disaster relief, security, and emergency healthcare . Yet privacy advocates worry that tracking humans with this technology could also lead to major abuses by governments, criminals, and businesses. Even trusting individuals baulk at the idea of tagging people like cattle. Unless, of course, it's for a really good cause. Which is why, inevitably, we see so many programs looking to test RFID tags on children, often to prevent them from being abducted. Schools the world over continue to toy with the ideas of placing tags on students to help monitor their attendance and keep them safe. Are we raising a generation that feels comfortable being tagged and tracked?

Schools in Japan, the UK, and other countries have been conducting trials for RFID tracking of students for years. Usually a small RFID tag, which looks vaguely like a maze of metal, will be embedded in clothing or a badge. Electronic receivers at doors interact with the tags and a central system keeps track of student locations and movements. Such a system is set to be tested in Contra Costa County in California, where preschoolers will be given a jersey to wear with a RFID inside. The school hopes to save money by keeping teachers from spending time on taking attendance and allow them to focus on educating the kids.

The testing on very young children is typical. Preschoolers are like a swarm of bees, hard to keep track of visually, and with much the same temperament to being herded. Automated attendance can save a lot of time. Furthermore, at this young age it is much more dangerous for children to left unwatched or allowed to wander on their own. RFID is seen as increasing student safety.

Indeed, in non-school applications, safety is the main selling point for RFID based child tracking systems. Years ago, Denmark's Legoland amusement park began offering parents the option of a RFID bracelet that allows them to locate their child in the park at any time through a mobile phone text message. The Legoland system is sold as helping parents find wandering kids and preventing childhood abduction.

Honestly though, I find RFID's safety arguments rather lacking. Anyone, including the child itself, could simply remove the article of clothing, or bracelets. Some systems use infrared sensors to sound an alarm whenever someone crosses a doorway without the appropriate RFID tag, but this requires every single person to carry an RFID at all times. In any case, it seems to me that RFID embedded clothes are a thin barrier against any sort of kidnapping or abuse.

Maybe we could get really safe and implant RFID chips under a child's skin. We've seen that technology before. In the future such tags could be boosted to allow a child to be tracked wherever they go. If we really wanted, there's no reason why children's locations couldn't be monitored every second of every day. Kidnapping could become a thing of the past.

But its end would come at a high price. Privacy advocates warn that the more data we embed in automated systems the more vulnerable we come to unwarranted tracking of that information. Criminals might scan the information encoded in RFID tags and use this to defraud or rob. Governments may track their citizens and impose undue restrictions upon their movements and actions. Businesses could become hyper vigilant in monitoring our habits to bombard us with custom-fit ads. We should rightfully fear where such invasions of privacy might lead us.

Yet I think our children are already moving beyond such fears. We worry about RFID tags giving away our locations publicly, but many young people already do so with geo-tagging on Facebook, or applications like Twitter and FourSquare. We worry about businesses collecting data on us, but almost every company already does this online, and children born in the last decade have never known it to be otherwise. We worry about governments tracking us, but our children are born in a time when threats of crime and terrorism compel us to wade through long security lines at airports, ball games, and even schools. Again, children born in the last decade have never known it to be otherwise. Even if we weren't considering using RFID tags to track kids at schools to keep them safe, we use tagging and tracking methods so often everywhere else that we are conditioning them to accept such measures more easily than we would.

Those attitudes may serve them well, because I think it's only going to get crazier from now on. Remember how RFID tags were invaluable tools in tracking inventory for stores? Well, chances are they'll become invaluable in a lot more places very soon. We are slowly (or should I say quickly?) building an Internet of Things - giving items connectivity to track their locations, status, and histories and to communicate with each other. Right now, many of our mobile phones are constantly using GPS and wireless communications to provide us with valuable information and services. What happens when most of the items on our body are doing the same thing? Whether or not we put RFID tags in children clothes today, the next decade may see us all floating in a cloud of RFID embedded goods.

The old mindset is that we protect ourselves by keeping our actions and locations private. The new mindset may be that we protect ourselves by limiting the importance of that information.

Does someone know you go to the same pizza place all the time? Everyone does, it's a common fact on Facebook - heck, you get free coupons from FourSquare because of it. Can someone easily find out what items you just bought at Wal-Mart? Sure, they could scan your RFID tags...or they could just check out your Twitter feed where you cover such things in detail.

In my grandparents' day I don't think someone could have easily gotten directions to their home without asking them, or asking a friend who would have told them someone was looking for them. Now, people can find efficient routes to nearly anywhere in just seconds using online maps. Would that scare my ancestors? Maybe, but I think such terror would be silly. The idea of RFID tags, and continuous tracking/monitoring scares me. In the future, perhaps my children will be kind enough not to think my fear quite so absurd.

[sources: RFID Journal, Information Week]

Discussion — 9 Responses

  • JW September 15, 2010 on 3:46 pm

    The day we embed tracking devices under our children’s skin is the day we lose our freedom.

    • GPS tracker JW November 12, 2010 on 8:01 am

      I think you are right, I read sometime ago that FBI put a GPS tracker in a man’s car, we are facing challenge to our privacy.

  • Nathronistar September 15, 2010 on 5:17 pm

    Is it really a surprise that some people are willing to be tracked? Half the people that own cell phones are voluntarily tracking themselves with apps that post where they are and when. How much of a jump is it really?

  • Vicmagna September 15, 2010 on 5:24 pm

    Being hidden and anonymous isnt exactly helping either. The government and businesses have to enact a program that provides us with peace of mind (laws) while having the benefit of the tags.

  • klr September 15, 2010 on 6:16 pm

    This is just an automated way of doing what was already being done. Not sure what the issue is. Every school has taken attendance for years, even tracked who rides buses. They would check a list or write someones name down. Now, this technology does the same thing, but easier so to help reduce the cost and inaccuracies that were identified with the old way.

  • Joey1058 September 15, 2010 on 8:15 pm

    Under skin tagging is ridiculous. Only people that are waaay too geeky do that. Tags in clothing isn’t much better. A tagged school ID can work. But if everyone is carrying a cell phone, why not just register the phone with the school? Passing through the scanners will just as easily register a phone as an RFID tag. But no matter what method winds up being used, this is something we’re eventually going to have to face head on.

  • Laborious September 16, 2010 on 8:52 am

    This isn’t high security, or a jail system. Why put the kids threw such? Give the people a choice P. Or start teaching people how to clone the chips/tags, or scrambling the signal, or blocking the signal. Forced human taging is wrong in many way’s. I didn’t mind the prisons doing it. After all they broke the law, and gave some right’s up when doing so. But children??? To many reasons why it’s wrong.

  • Threes4luck September 16, 2010 on 2:12 pm

    Eventually people will have to be tracked. I see potential for much abuse and manipulation of this system, which is why it needs to be refined of course, but after the kinks are worked out it can only help. Laws can be better enforced which is a good thing , and for people concerned with privacy I suspect such a system would be entirely automated. If not I couldn’t condone it as humans are too prone to corruption.

  • RFID Tracking October 12, 2010 on 1:16 am

    There are many RFID usage we can have and tracking our children is one of the best things we can do