It was inevitable that the radio tags that let cars breeze through toll plazas would get placed on, or in, people. The sole elementary school in a California town 50 miles northwest of Sacramento raised hackles far and wide this past January when it tagged students with the same technology used to determine the whereabouts of cattle and to keep tabs on toilet paper rolls at Wal-Mart. The Brittan Elementary School in Sutter required the seventh- and eighth-grade students to wear a badge that sported a name, a photograph and a radio tag containing identification data that could be read automatically at attendance time. Purportedly, the radio-equipped badges would have also helped improve safety and prevent vandalism.
The situation in Sutter quickly turned incandescent. One tagged student returned from school and told her parents that she felt like a piece of supermarket produce, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. Parents staged a protest. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups jumped in. After the local company that developed the technology reacted to the controversy by withdrawing from the project, the school abandoned it in mid-February.
The radio tags deployed in Sutter are, like all new technology, neither inherently good nor bad. Their value, of course, depends on how they are used. Tags could help detect a container shipped into the Port of Baltimore carrying a dirty bomb. In Brazil, businessmen have of their own accord taken more drastic steps than those imposed at Brittan Elementary. In response to that country's rash of kidnappings, forty of them have gone so far as to implant radio-tracking chips under their skin. The company that imports the chips from the U.S. told the Brazilian daily O Globo that it has a 2,000-person waiting list.
But, unlike the Brazilian empres¿rios, students in Sutter had no choice in the matter. They faced the threat of expulsion if they showed up in the morning without badges strung around their necks. A seventh-grade classroom was clearly the wrong place to implement radio tags that convey precarious implications for individual privacy. The Brittan school board may have had the best intentions, but tagging junior high kids becomes a form of indoctrination into an emerging surveillance society that young minds should be learning to question.
Public education and debate about the proper framework for protecting electronic privacy is desperately called for because we are beginning to see the floodgates open. The U.S. government is pushing aggressively ahead with plans for radio tags in passports, which will store personal information and be readable remotely by anyone, whether a customs official at a desk or a terrorist standing nearby. The Department of Homeland Security has already strapped more than 1,700 immigrants applying for permanent residency with ankle bracelets to prevent those who may be ordered for deportation from fleeing. The respite for the student-tagging business, moreover, may be short-lived. InCom, the company that outfitted Sutter students, has received calls from many other school districts interested in implementing similar programs.
Some segments of U.S. society have always had a visceral aversion to a national identity card. Those instincts are sound and should be reinforced. Widespread adoption of human-tracking devices should never be embraced without serious and prolonged discussion at all levels of society.
This article was originally published with the title Human Inventory Control.