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

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]

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