Don’t Chip Me, Bro!

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Hi Folks — Lenore from Free-Range Kids. Have you seen this story? I hadn’t. Two schools in Texas appear ready to make their students wear identification cards with an RFID tracking chip in them. Supposedly this is for the students’ safety.

Except…I”m not even a predator and I know that if I ever kidnapped a kid, the first thing I’d do would be to throw their i.d. card out the window. Better still, I’d pull a DaVinci Code and throw it onto a truck going the other way.

Clearly the real point is to keep track of the kids the way Walmart keeps track of palettes of Prell. And yet, here’s the encouraging news: The kids and their parents are rebelling! They’re particularly appalled because the chips keep right on tracking, even after school hours. Big Brother go home!

And speaking of going home, that is what I am doing, too. I really want to thank Radley for inviting me to guest-post here for August.  I loved hearing from you, readers, and I also loved reading what all the other August-bloggers had to say. Eye-opening! I shall continue to read them and I hope to continue to hear from some of you, too. When it comes to fighting stupidity and rigidity, we’re all in this together. – L.

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33 Responses to “Don’t Chip Me, Bro!”

  1. #1 |  Robert | 

    RFID only works at very short distances, but yeah, I would want one on my kid either.

  2. #2 |  Robert | 

    Would NOT. Arrrgh! Edit button!

  3. #3 |  Steve Wildstrom | 

    There’s a serious problem with the description of the technology here. RFID tags are semi-passive; they indicate their presence in response to a signal from a nearby reader. The exact distance at which this works ranges from near-contact to several feet. The EZ-Pass readers that scan your car at tollgates are examples of the long-range variety.

    The RFID tages only allow students to be tracked when they pass within the required proximity of a school reader. They are not going to do anything anywhere else, including homes.

    Most ID badges these days have RFID tags because that allows them to double as both ordinary visual ID cards and keys for electronic locks.

  4. #4 |  Frank Hummel | 

    Yeah, my wife’s a nurse and has to wear one at work. They are all mature responsible people there tho.

    Having gone thru school myself i think i can see how these things are gonna become useless pretty fast. Kids are gonna start swapping them just for fun or find some way to relieve others of them and attach them to some delivery guy that leaves school grounds giving the “minders” a fit.

  5. #5 |  Warren | 

    First off, this is appauling.

    Reminds me of a lady I knew that owned a small clothing boutique. When her daughter started crawling then eventually walking, it was a concern she might slip out the front door. So she daily, she would put a shoplifting tag on her daughter’s outfit, and if she got near the door, the alarm sounded.

    Best use of those tags I have ever seen.

  6. #6 |  Burgers Allday | 

    wow, prell. that takes me back.

  7. #7 |  Matt | 

    RFID developer here. As Robert said, RFID only works for short distances. It isn’t like GPS. You can track someone via RFID only in places that have RFID readers monitoring them. The school can keep track of the kids inside the school, though. If I were the school I would wire up every room entrance and every building entrance, which would let me know when kids entered and left the building (as well as tracking where they were in the building).

    This sort of system is rather easy to get around and wouldn’t foil any predator. The most information you would be able to get would be the time the student was abducted. If there was a video cameras at the parking lot you might be able to get a licence plate too, but it would only mean the search for the offending vehicle would be easier.

    What I bet the system is actually going to be used for is to guard against class cutting/truancy and the like. Even the effectiveness of that is in question, as students could just give their tag to someone else, but it might work some of the time.

  8. #8 |  Havva | 

    RFID is not a GPS transponder. The RFID chip needs to be within a certain distance of a reader in order to be scanned. Also there are serious issues with interference if multiple chips are place close together. I am wearing 4 different chips right now, and have two others. In order to get through the doors they activate, I have to separate the cards from one another and place the card directly on the reader.

    The school is probably using them so they can keep doors locked. I’ve heard of a school wanting to use RFID to take roll, though that is a terrible idea, since a kid could just give it to a friend to clock in and out with.

  9. #9 |  Matthew F | 

    They’re particularly appalled because the chips keep right on tracking, even after school hours.

    This town doesn’t seem to understand how RFID chips work. All they tell you is that a given tag passed close to a given sensor (usually within a few feet) at a certain time. It doesn’t give you any information about where you are after leaving the short range of that sensor – heck, even determining which direction one is traveling is probably beyond most systems. So once your snowflake leaves school grounds, it’s useless.

    And if some random person buys an RFID sensor compatible with the school’s system, what does it get them? A random number which is meaningless without being able to interrogate the school’s database. That person gets far more meaningful information by putting up a camera – yet who complains if a convenience store puts a surveillance camera on their premises?

    One last irony: Free Range Children is usually focused on the absurdness of “stranger danger” – yet “stranger danger”, rather than any articulable risk of harm, is the motivating fear behind RFID tags: “someone” might do “something” to my snowflake, ignoring that the RFID doesn’t give them any information about their child.

  10. #10 |  Matthew F | 

    Too many Matts here!

    The original article throws “safety” in almost as a buzzword. 90% of it focuses on truancy reduction.

    If they did move to an ID-only roll-call, as you note, the ease with which a student could work around the system by passing their tag to a classmate might be intentional – it would allow them to inflate their attendance figures without having to actually teach the people who don’t want to be there anyway.

  11. #11 |  TriggerFinger | 

    Don’t be naive, the RFID chips have nothing to do with preventing kidnappings. They work in maybe a 3-foot-diameter circle around a fixed point. The RFID chip is about knowing the following information about kids on school grounds:

    1) When they arrived (reader at the entrance) for attendance purposes
    2) When the left (reader at the exit) for the same
    3) Possibly what classroom they are in
    4) Possibly whether they are in a dining hall or other non-classroom indoor location
    5) At the most extreme possible use, an unusually-powerful transmitter could perhaps cover the whole school building and give realtime results on who is in the general area of the building.

    This isn’t about stopping or preventing anything. It’s about deniability. It’s about being able to say “I don’t know what happened to your kid, he wasn’t in school” or, conversely, “We are fining you $xxx for your child’s absence from class” without having to, you know, actually have a human who cares about kids recognize them individually and keep track of the information by hand. The appropriate response to this is to ask a kid how they would bypass it. (“Ask my buddy to wave my card at the reader device when he goes to school”).

    The school officials will doubtless argue that the RFID chips will allow them to only unlock doors for those people (students, teachers, administrators) with valid RFID chips. This is their safety argument. No one gets in the school without a valid RFID! But what about parents? Do parents get RFID cards? If so, you’ve just tossed out your security benefits (parents in custody disputes). If not, are you going to put up with being locked out of the building where your child spends their day? Don’t worry; if the administration won’t budge, just ask your child how to bypass it. (“Wait for a group of people to go through the door all at the same time, and slip in at the back of the group; someone will hold the door for you.”)

    The only benefit here is freeing up teachers from taking attendance by hand every morning or at the beginning of every class.

    It’s only creepy because it’s automated, keeps detailed records of where every kid was when on school grounds, and gives that information to people who aren’t known or trusted personally by each parent (the teachers and administrators). Which is actually pretty creepy, but it’s not like they couldn’t keep track of it by hand before, it was just harder.

    So, while it’s not exactly the death of all privacy, it doesn’t really offer huge benefits either. It’s a way for schools to spend lots of tax money on new technology that is shiny and exciting and neat, and a way for them to pretend to be offering Security! But it’s not actually much more secure. Businesses often use similar systems to control access to secure buildings, but it isn’t really “controlling” access, it’s about giving everyone their own key to the building without having to change the lock whenever someone leaves the company.

    Putting the things in drivers licenses would be a different matter. People carry those everywhere, and while a school id is only necessary at school, a drivers license hits far more of the population for far more of their time, so readers could be scattered everywhere. What would a store at the mall pay to know the name and face and address of everyone who walked into their store? That’s the real privacy threat, when a standard RFID chip is in something everyone carries, and every business installs readers for that standard chip for their own business advantage, and the government then has access to the cumulative set of location and identity data.

  12. #12 |  TriggerFinger | 

    Matthew F: …. It may bother you to know that I am also named Matt. There are more of us than you thought.

  13. #13 |  William Anderson | 

    There you go again, Lenore, using your brain and some common sense. Don’t you know that in a bureaucratic and politicized society, we cannot do that anymore? No, we have to engage in stupid things, publicize them, and then be shocked, SHOCKED when things blow up.

  14. #14 |  MikeV | 

    There are many types of RFIDs, and there are some with on-board batteries that can be read up to 200 meters away.

    There was some concern that the RFIDs in US passports could be read up to 10 meters away.

    Wait till they start requiring everyone to have an implanted RFID.

  15. #15 |  Jim Wetzel | 

    ” … the way Walmart keeps track of palettes of Prell … “

    Lenore, I already hate myself for picking this particular nit, but it might help you in the future, so here goes. A “palette” is that funny-shaped wooden thing that an artist deploys and mixes his colors on when he’s painting. A “pallet” is a rough wooden platform on which you stack goods to facilitate handling them with a forklift. (It’s also something that us Hoosiers are apt to call a “skid.”)

    Thanks for posting here … it’s been fun reading your stuff, and I’ll go on doing so at FRK.

  16. #16 |  KristenS | 

    Thanks for your postings, Lenore. I dont even have kids, and I have found your posts to be the most interesting during Balko’s sabbatical.

    Have a great weekend!

  17. #17 |  Bergman | 

    I don’t have kids myself, but if my niece lived in that nosy school district, I’d be buying her an RFID blocking wallet ASAP ( ).

    Re: Matthew F, #7 & #8:

    You can solve the directional issue by staggering two or three sensors just out of range of eachother and recording which gets pinged first. If they’re in a corridor, you know the direction of travel from the time stamps. With a little math you’d know the rate of travel too (NO RUNNING IN THE HALLS! Heh).

    Roll calls based solely on RFID would fail with the wallet I listed above. When I was a kid, I bought my first wallet the day I got my first school ID card. I imagine kids still do that, if they don’t already have one.

  18. #18 |  OldGrump | 

    While RFID chips are, as already pointed out, only for short range use, I still wouldn’t be too happy about them either, if for no other reason than the attempt to normalize a culture of surveillance for our youth.

    If my family lived in a district that tried something like this, I’d encourage my kids to use faraday cage containers, so the chips would be unreadable when they aren’t in school.

    It’s also why my kids will or have (depending on age) read Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother.”

  19. #19 |  Warren | 

    This is what I have always talked about. This minor privacy intrusion, for the greater good, is a first step. First it desensitizes people to the intrusion, so that in the future they can go further and further, little by little untill one day a principal is calling and asking why Johnny’s gps signal is coming from the bowling alley?

    Stop it now, before it goes too far. Tell them to stick those cards up their… know the rest.

  20. #20 |  DPirate | 

    I appreciated your posts here, Lenore.

  21. #21 |  Bill Wells | 

    RFID chips…..sensitive little buggers….wouldn’t want to expose them to high intensity microwaves, now would we?

    “Sorry, teach, I have no idea why my card doesn’t work anymore.”


  22. #22 |  Warren | 

    You can track my dog Teach, he ate the card and my homework.

  23. #23 |  Matt | 


    I actually have microwaved an RFID tag before. In my infinite wisdom I put it on a paper towel. I was expecting it to ruin the chip but leave not affect the outward appearance. I wasn’t expecting it to explode in the microwave and light the paper towel on fire. Oops. I’d recommend a hammer, just as effective and won’t leave any indication that you destroyed it.


    The system you are describing sounds like a standard HF security system. A UHF RFID reader can read much further than that. It is undesirable for a door security system to read from far away, as you don’t want random people moving around to unlock a secure door.


    You can read a lot further than that, even with a passive tag. I installed a system that could read from 40 feet away pretty easy under ideal circumstances, and you can go further than that. You can go much further with active RFID (the tags have their own battery in them).

  24. #24 |  TriggerFinger | 

    @23: Not to dispute with you on technical capabilities, but there’s a big difference between “can do this in the lab or with an engineer” and “typical installation”. Even a 30-foot RFID read isn’t a big privacy problem for this installation, so long as it’s a school id card that you can leave at home when you’re not going to school or stash in a wallet that blocks RFID signals. (I’ve had such a wallet for almost a decade now).

    A school RFID tag is a bigger threat than a “product” tag or a “business key” tag, because the school market is big enough that non-school readers could start popping up at businesses or government offices that deal with students. It’s still a smaller threat than a “mandatory ID card you carry with you to operate a motor vehicle” tag. The slippery slope argument is valid here, because you’ve got the government involved in a large scale and the ID cards become mandatory for those in school and after a few years of that the step to tags in driver’s licenses is a small one.

    I’m not saying “don’t be concerned”.

    I’m saying the proposed benefits of this system have nothing to do with safety.

  25. #25 |  Cthulhu | 

    I forsee some enterprising teenage nerd making a fortune selling cloned rfid chips.

  26. #26 |  Earth | 

    All this tells youth is that they cannot be trusted. When I studied Youth Work, we were taught to build trust, not demolish it.

  27. #27 |  Don | 

    If RFID on kids is the solution, what’s the problem? Maybe if the school has a perimeter of RFID readers AND there’s no other way on or off campus except past an RFID reader AND we somehow require the kids to carry their own RFID and no one else’s (or else the gate won’t open? or else they get in trouble?), then we can know at any given moment which kids are on campus and which kids are off campus. That’s sort of useful for school officials to know, and it’s their job to know it, so I wouldn’t have a problem with using the technology.

    It’s not going to answer questions like where the kid is when s/he’s off campus, or what s/he’s doing. This is why, for example, my RFID office key isn’t a threat to my privacy.

  28. #28 |  horseydeucey | 

    It’s amazing to me seeing the posts here attempting to educate us on what RFID does and doesn’t do. Who cares?
    Where’s the compelling interest in public school systems thinking about mandating students carry one? That’s what should be the focus here– not what RFID can or can’t do.
    When I went to school, the administrators knew who was on campus and who wasn’t. It was called ‘taking attendance.’ Have we lost that ability somehow?

    Somewhere, a salesman is making a pitch to the most gullible school administrators in the world.

  29. #29 |  Warren | 

    #27 You are spot on. Take attendance, end of story. What kills me, is that schools across the country never seem to have enough budget for the essentials, such as textbooks. But this state of the art big brother is watching you system, is in the budget.

    And for those prinicpals and teachers, get up off of your fat ass, and go look for yourself, instead of pulling up the screen then paging badge #251, because #251 has been in the restroom for a long time.

    My advice is for parents to keep these chipped cards at home, and just send a letter with your kid. “Mom and Dad say Chip This!!!!!”

  30. #30 |  Wilma | 

    I realize the point of this automated technology is to make things easier, like taking attendance. Easier for the administration, though.

    My kids’ elementary school encourages parents to buy meal plans for kids, so they don’t have to be “bothered” with money (losing it, not having it, etc.). Their school lunch costs $2.35 and includes two sides. But the sides are only offered at the front, and they load up all kinds of a la carte snacks in the middle that are an extra cost. Kids on meal plans have no idea that the lunch they are eating actually costs $5. I’d rather roll the dice, give my kids money and have them understand what they are purchasing and do the math. The same school teaches “Everyday Math” which works with real money and making change, but discourages kids from using real money in their very own cafeteria.

  31. #31 |  Bergman | 

    Re: Don, #26:

    All it takes to defeat the idea of a solid perimeter of RFID sensors is a $20 RFID blocking wallet. Or for the low budget approach, wrapping the ID card in aluminum foil.

  32. #32 |  Tom | 

    Knowing school districts and their maintenance habits it is unlikely that these will function correctly for long. I have my doubts that the school budget allows for the skilled maintenance personnel to keep it running. Secondly, I can see any number of students taking a hammer and breaking the chip, thus foiling the purpose of the investment. Is the school really going to charge parents for replacements if the RFID stops working? There are reasons that schools are inefficient, one of which is you can’t really force students to behave the way you want them to when no one is looking.

  33. #33 |  Quiet Desperation | 

    They need a Lo-Jack approach where even the car’s owner does no know where the transmitter is hidden.