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Concerns Raised over Use of Computer RFID Chips to Track Preschool Children

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Privacy advocates are raising concerns over the use of RFID chips to help track students at a public preschool in California. The technology is being tested on 240 preschool students in the Head Start Program in Richmond. Preschool students have been outfitted with jerseys carrying tiny computer chips that have a radio antenna that can be tracked from a distance. We host a debate. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Privacy advocates are raising concerns over the use of RFID chips to help track students at a public preschool in California. The technology is being tested on 240 preschool students in the Head Start Program in Richmond. Preschoolers have been outfitted with jerseys carrying the radio frequency identification tags, tiny computer chips that have a radio antenna that can be tracked from a distance. The tags now help teachers keep attendance and track the whereabouts of the students. RFID tags have been used for years to help monitor cattle, prisoners and store merchandise, but the preschool in Richmond is believed to be the first childcare center to use the technology.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Karen Mitchoff is a spokeswoman for the Contra Costa County Employment & Human Services, which oversees the Head Start Program in Richmond, California. And joining us from San Francisco is Nicole Ozer. She’s technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of Northern California.

Karen Mitchoff, let’s begin with you. Explain what this program is. Where are these radio frequency devices being inserted on the children’s clothes, and why are you doing it?

KAREN MITCHOFF: Good morning.

The children wear a jersey that has a little pocket in it, and when the child comes to school each morning, a chip is placed in the pocket, and the child wears the jersey throughout the day. And when the child leaves school, the jersey is removed and stays at the school, and the chip is removed.

AMY GOODMAN: And why are you doing it?

KAREN MITCHOFF: We got a technology grant. This is something that helps us at Head Start. I do want to make sure — you know, I’ve heard this thing about how it’s used to track prisoners and cattle and animals. This, you know, is completely different. It’s very — I just want to disabuse that concept, because this is used as a tool to assist teachers doing their job. It’s not to alleviate them of any responsibility. It’s — as I say, we got a technology grant. And it was something that we decided to do to assist the teachers, have more time for teaching.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Nicole Ozer of the ACLU, why are you opposed to it?

NICOLE OZER: We’re really concerned about this program and why, actually, federal stimulus funds are being used to track kids. You know, RFID technology is very expensive, it’s very intrusive, and it’s often very insecure. And microchipping students is just a very bad idea. You know, what we’re talking about here is tracking preschool kids with extremely powerful RFID technology that can be read at a distance of up to a hundred meters away, so the length of a football field. And, you know, this technology has been used to track cattle, to track products moving through a manufacturing sector or through a warehouse. And while that might make some sense, trying to use the same technology on people, particularly young children, leads to very serious privacy and security concerns.

RFID technology is designed so that the information that’s encoded on that chip, whether it be a name, whether it be an address, whether it be a unique identifier number, can be read at a distance without anyone ever knowing that it’s been read. So, you know, while we don’t — while this school might have intended this as a cost-saving measure to help with attendance, the reality is that unless the security on these chips is airtight, when these kids are wearing these chips around the school, on the playground and on field trips, unless that security is airtight, it’s not just the teachers who can potentially read this information and track these kids. It’s someone across the street or down the block that can potentially read these chips, read this information, and potentially use that information to harm kids.

And, you know, we have seen that these tracking and security threats are very real. Just last year, a security researcher read the RFID chips that are on the United States passport cards and the enhanced drivers licenses from a distance of thirty feet with a device that he built for $250 from parts that he bought on eBay. So, you know, we don’t doubt that the school district may have thought that this was a cost-saving measure that potentially could be safe, but the reality is that we have seen, time and time again, that RFID technology can be very unsafe and that it’s just a very bad idea to use on children.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Karen Mitchoff, what about the security issues and also the cost? Could you talk about how much this is costing? You say you got a grant from the government for this.

KAREN MITCHOFF: Sure, and I recognize what Ms. Ozer is saying. We are — feel very confident that, while the issues she raises relative to other cases do not apply to this case. The tag is child-specific, has — I’m sorry, has no child-specific information on it, so anything that could be read, there’s just no child-specific information on it.

Relative to the cost, we got a $115,000 stimulus grant for technology, supplemented by a $45,000 grant from Head Start, so the total grant amount is $160,000. For the first site, it was $50,000, because this is our largest Head Start site. This purchased the equipment and the jerseys and the tags. Should we decide to roll this out to other Head Start sites, they are smaller in capacity, and so the cost won’t be that much. We will be evaluating whether we do that or not. I don’t have a time frame for when we will be evaluating that. And that’s how much it cost.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And it was $50,000 for about how many children?

KAREN MITCHOFF: Two hundred. There are ten classrooms at this Head Start site, and each classroom has twenty children in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Who initially came up with this idea? Was it the Head Start Program that was looking to solve a problem, or was it the government that was looking to spend some money and to push forward this technology?

KAREN MITCHOFF: This was our Head Start site that recognized that this would be a tool that could be used to assist teachers. They had known of the technology. And when the grant opportunity came across a staff person’s desk, they looked and researched it more. We applied for the grant. The grant was awarded. And we went through a request for proposal process. This was very public and known, as far as a process. There was no specific company in mind. There was — three applicants put in for it, and then one company in California was awarded the contract for us to move forward with it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And then, could you tell us whether — the reaction of the parents of these children? Were they — did they have to sign off on this, or is this mandatory for all the children in these daycare centers?

KAREN MITCHOFF: The parents were notified. There were community meetings, if you will, parent meetings. Overwhelmingly, the parents were very supportive of this. It’s not a mandatory program. Should there be a reason that a child should not participate, the child does still wear the jersey so that that child is not teased or taunted, if you will, by the other children in the class, as to “Why aren’t you wearing a jersey, and I am?” But the chip is not inserted in the pocket.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the district’s intent? If you’re not — if these students aren’t individually identified, what’s being accomplished by getting this aggregate information?

KAREN MITCHOFF: And I do appreciate it’s a very complicated issue. What happens is the tag or the chip has no child-specific information on it. When the child comes into the classroom that day and puts on their jersey and the tag is inserted, at that point the child’s name is on it. But there’s no birth date, there’s no address, there’s no other information on it, so that the child — we do know that Johnny is moving around at the site. When the child leaves, the tag is taken out, and it’s swiped, and there’s no longer any information on the tag. The information is downloaded to a server that shows, as I said — Head Start needs to take attendance every hour. So it shows that the child was at the site for those hourly attendance counts. It assists us in meals, as far as — because it’s a Head Start site, we get money through the Department of Agriculture for nutritional supplement — or not supplements, but nutritional requirements, and therefore we can just say, you know, how many students were fed what type of meal. And those reports are then sent on to Head Start in accordance with the program.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole Ozer, what’s your bigger issue with this, and where do you see this headed?

NICOLE OZER: You know, we can understand that Head Start Programs want to be efficient. But the reality is that using very high-powered chips that have a read range of up to a hundred meters away and that have been shown to be very insecure is not the right solution. And we’re certainly hoping that this — that the district is going to look very closely at the fact that RFID technology has been shown to be very insecure and is not appropriate to use on schoolchildren. Five years ago, parents up in Sutter, California, dismantled a similar program when they realized that there were really serious privacy and security concerns. And we want to make sure that preschoolers are safe and also that federal funds are being used in a way that’s appropriate.

You know, this is an expensive program. It’s incredibly intrusive. And it’s really potentially very unsafe for these kids. You know, this information can potentially be read at a distance, and once it’s been read, a duplicate chip can actually be created, and that can confuse the system and make people think that the children are actually safely on campus, when they’ve actually been taken off of campus. You know, we really can appreciate that school districts want to be efficient with their record keeping, but parents should not have to pay for public school with the privacy and security of their kids. And federal stimulus funds really need to be used appropriately and safely. And we certainly hope that the Department of Health and Human Services and Head Start and this district are going to look closely at this program and realize that there’s cheaper and safer ways to take attendance for school kids.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Nicole Ozer, are you planning any action, or have you been in contact with any of the parents who are directly involved with this program?

NICOLE OZER: You know, right now we’ve been asking a lot of questions, and we’re still trying to find out a lot of answers about this program and about the technology that’s being used. But we are very concerned about how safe this is. You know, even though there may be limited information on those chips and that the chips are actually rotated, if somebody can track a child for a minute, an hour a day, that can be very, very harmful to that child, when they’re on the playground or out on a field trip. And we want to make sure that the Department of Health and Human Services and Head Start and this district have looked closely at these issues and that parents aren’t going to have to forfeit their child’s safety for this issue. So we’re very concerned that the school district did not understand this technology appropriately and that parents certainly didn’t understand the risks that it posed to the privacy and to the security of their children.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole Ozer, we want to thank you for being with us, of the ACLU, and Karen Mitchoff of the Contra Costa County Employment & Human Services Department. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to go to a case in Pennsylvania. There, a suit has been brought, and it’s around the schools turning on the cameras in school-issued computers to look at — some say spy on — students. Stay with us.

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