John Whitehead's Commentary
The Fight Against the Total Surveillance State in Our Schools
“I would say there is a school-to-prison pipeline, but there is also a prison-to-school pipeline. [The use of security hardware (cameras, metal detectors and retina detectors) and the practice of treating students as suspects are strategies of the criminal justice system, and they have been flowing into the schools.] It’s like a two-way street, a two-way system that mixes the educational and criminal justice systems. The end result is that we have schools in which the learning environment has been degraded and undermined because we are teaching kids to fear and feel that they are suspects at any particular time. Educators talk about the teachable moments. Unfortunately, public fear of kids, public hysteria around another Columbine, has prevented people from remembering that the mission of public schools is to educate.”—Annette Fuentes, author of Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jail House
The battle playing out in San Antonio, Texas, over one student’s refusal to comply with a public school campaign to microchip students has nothing to do with security concerns and even less to do with academic priorities. What is driving this particular program, which requires students to carry “smart” identification cards embedded with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tracking devices, is money, pure and simple—or to put it more bluntly, this program is yet another example of the nefarious collusion between government bureaucracy and corporate America, a way for government officials to dance to the tune of the corporate state, while unhesitatingly selling students to the highest bidder.
Oblivious to the impact on students’ fundamental rights, school officials with the Northside Independent School District (NISD) in San Antonio, Texas, have embarked upon a crusade to foist ID badges embedded with RFID tags on about 4,200 students at Jay High School and Jones Middle School. These tags produce a radio signal that is tied to the students’ Social Security numbers, allowing the wearer’s precise movements to be constantly monitored. Although the school district already boasts 290 surveillance cameras, the cards which the students are required to wear will make it possible for school officials to track students’ whereabouts at all times. Teachers are even requiring students to wear the IDs when they want to use the bathroom. NISD officials plan to eventually expand the $500,000 program to the district’s 112 schools, with a student population of 100,000.
Hoping to achieve full student compliance with the profit-driven Student Locator Project, school officials have actually gone so far as to offer gift cards, pizza parties and raffle prizes to classes with the highest ID badge participation rates. By any other name, you would call this bribery. No such rewards, however, await the students like 15-year-old Andrea Hernandez who resist the program on principle. Since voicing her objection to the program on religious grounds, Andrea has been stigmatized, penalized and discriminated against. Those who, like Andrea Hernandez, refuse to wear the SmartID badge will also be forced to stand in separate lunch lines, denied participation in student government and activities, and prohibited from making certain commercial exchanges at school.
School officials at Jay High School reportedly offered to quietly remove the tracking chip from Andrea Hernandez’s card if the sophomore would agree to wear the new ID, stop criticizing the program and publicly support the initiative. Andrea refused on principle, because she believes wearing the chipless Student Locator ID badge would signal that she endorses a program that not only violates her conscience but also runs afoul of her constitutional rights. As a result, Andrea now faces expulsion for refusing to participate in the school’s money-making scheme. (The parallels to another so-called “necessary” taxpayer-funded program, full-body x-ray scanners in airports, are evident. Of course, those scanners, which are now being relegated to a moldering Texas warehouse, turned out to be little more than a pointless yet costly means of enriching the security industrial complex.)
Just to be clear, these tracking devices are not being employed to prevent students from cutting classes or foster better academics. It’s a money game. Using the devices to account for the students’ whereabouts on campus, whether in class or not, school administrators can “count” students as being “in school” and thereby qualify for up to $1.7 million in funding from the state government. As Pascual Gonzalez, Northside’s communications director, explains, “The revenues that are generated by locating kids who are not in their chairs to answer ‘present,’ but are in the building—in the counselor’s office, in the cafeteria, in the hallway, in the gym—if we can show they were, in fact, in school, then we can count them present.”
While this Student Locator program is not yet widespread, it’s only a matter of time before we see more students facing the same struggle. Other student tracking programs are currently being tested in Baltimore, Anaheim, Houston, and the Palos Heights School District near Chicago. Some cities already have fully implemented programs, including Houston, Texas, which began using RFID chips to track students as early as 2004. Preschoolers in Richmond, Calif., have been tagged with RFID chips since 2010.
Attempts to impose these tracking chips on unsuspecting young people have not gone wholly unchallenged. For example, in 2005 a school district in Sutter, California was forced to abandon their RFID project after a backlash from the community. In 2008, an RFID proposal concerning school buses in Rhode Island was abandoned after parent objections.
Unfortunately, while parents and students have fought back in some instances, they have yet to discourage the financial interest of the security industrial complex, which has set its sights on the schools as “a vast, rich market”—a $20 billion market, no less—just waiting to be conquered. Indeed, corporations stand to make a great deal of money if RFID tracking becomes the norm across the country. A variety of companies, including AIM Truancy Solutions, ID Card Group and DataCard, already market and sell RFID trackers to school districts throughout the country, and with big names such as AT&T and IBM entering the market, the pressure on school districts to adopt these systems and ensure compliance will only increase.
In fact, corporations are going to great lengths to secure their profits by discouraging government officials from allowing students to opt out of RFID programs. In 2011, the Texas legislature considered a bill that would have prohibited “certain mandatory student identification methods,” limiting schools to only an opt-in method of student identification, qualified with the permission of a student’s parent or guardian. Michael Wade, representing Wade Garcia & Associates, a consulting firm responsible for installing the technology in Northside school district, testified against the bill, protesting specifically against the opt-out policy. The bill died in committee.
RFID is only one aspect of what is an emerging industry in tracking, spying, and identification devices. For example, schools in Pinellas County, Fla., now use palm reading devices to allow children to purchase lunch. The reader takes an infrared picture of the palm’s vein structure, and then matches that information with the child’s identity. 50,000 students in the county are using the readers, and another 60,000 are expected to soon join the program. Palm scanning identification devices are spreading to hospitals and schools across the country, and can be found in over 50 school systems and 160 hospital systems, spanning 15 states and Washington, DC.
Due in large part to the technological and profit-driven collusion between government and big business, every aspect of our society, from schooling, to banking, to shopping, to healthcare is becoming increasingly automated and surveillance oriented. RFID tags, for example, are expected to replace bar code scanning in retail goods, and they are already found in American passports. Palm scanning is likely to enter other industries that rely on identification, including retail, banking, and cloud computing. There are already palm-reading ATMs in Japan.
Without strong safeguards for privacy now, it will not be long before these technologies—sold to us as being for our good and aimed at making our lives safer, easier and more efficient—will come to dominate every aspect of our lives. And those who resist, like young Andrea Hernandez, will be cut off from basic goods and services and treated like second-class citizens.
We are generally taught to fear the stock images of tyranny: the jackboots in marching formation, the jail cell door, the batons cracking down on innocent skulls. Yet while we should be vigilant against these injustices, most are wholly unaware of the invasive technologies which are slowly spreading across America: the tyranny of radio waves and Wi-Fi signals, infrared cameras, biometric scanners and GPS tracking devices, among many others.
These tendrils of the corporate surveillance-state are slowly coming to control all our daily interactions, and our nation’s public schools are merely the forefront of a movement to completely automate all human interaction and ensure that no one is able to escape the prying eyes of government officials and their corporate partners.