The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Feds to Fund Controversial School Surveillance

by Catherine Komp

In what some allege is a thinly veiled attempt to normalize surveillance, a federal agency is pumping more money into Big Brother programs that track students despite declining needs for school security.

Nov. 29, 2005 – As debate over government surveillance rages in adult society, the US Department of Justice is quietly enticing school districts to implement controversial technologies that monitor and track students. Critics fear these efforts will normalize electronic surveillance at an early age, conditioning young people to accept privacy violations while creating a market for companies that develop and sell surveillance systems.

A few of the nation’s schools are already running pilot programs to monitor students’ movements using radio frequency identification (RFID). The highly controversial programs, implemented in the name of student protection, see pupils wearing tags around their necks and submitting themselves to electronic scanning as they enter and leave school property. Now, a new federal grant could lure more districts into using these or similar technologies.

Even though school violence is at its lowest rate in a decade, according to the federal government’s own statistics, the Justice Department’s "School Safety Technologies" grants will be distributed to schools that develop proposals in four broadly defined areas: integrated physical security systems, bus-fleet monitoring systems, low-level force devices and school safety training.

In its call for the grant proposals, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) – an arm of the Justice Department – says the money will be distributed to schools proposing "effective technology solutions to protect the students, teachers, school personnel, and the educational infrastructure from criminal activities, particularly crimes of violence."

Privacy advocates say it further compromises the already minimal civil rights of students while reinforcing a demeaning environment that erodes trust and respect between young people and adults.

The NIJ states that the current systems used in schools are costly, invasive, labor intensive, and "objectionable to various segments of the community." The Department’s vision for improvements are "integrated physical security systems," which would include "non-obtrusive sensors" to detect drugs and weapons, as well as to track students, staff, visitors, and intruders on school grounds. It also asks applicants to develop systems that enable law enforcement personnel to track the time and place that students enter and exit school buses.

In one of the more controversial areas of the grant solicitation, the NIJ states that "non-cooperative" identification and tracking is preferred over a "cooperative" system. A non-cooperative identification system captures and tracks personal or biometric data automatically, without a person knowing that they have been screened by a surveillance system.

Catherine Sanders, a spokesperson with the NIJ, would not elaborate on the specific technology that could be proposed to qualify for the grant money. She said doing so would create an uneven playing field for applicants. However, the types of technology solutions described by the NIJ are similar to RFID surveillance and biometric data programs. Companies that manufacture these products often describe "cooperative and non-cooperative tracking" components of their systems.

Maximum-security Schools

Such technologies have already been implemented in some school districts. North of Houston, Texas, 16,000 elementary students in the Spring Independent School District wear RFID tags, embedded with chips that indicate their locations on a computerized map. The school also has 750 surveillance cameras mounted throughout its facilities, with plans to install 300 more.

In New York, RFID systems are also being used in schools. The Brockport Central School District in northern New York is testing school bus fleet monitoring with GPS technology and scanning students IDs as they enter and exit the bus. Students at the Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo wave their RFID tags in front of two kiosks at the school entrance which automatically transmit attendance to teachers and administrators.

The use of RFID tracking technology in schools is troubling to electronic privacy advocates. They say it further compromises the already minimal civil rights of students while reinforcing a demeaning environment that erodes trust and respect between young people and adults.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public-interest organization, believes the increasing use of RFID technology in schools could affect how the public views surveillance.

"It creates an atmosphere where you normalize the use of surveillance technology… [and] the idea that you should accept that you are being tracked," said Tien.

Katherine Albrecht, director of the group Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) and author of Spychips : How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID, is also concerned about technological surveillance in schools. She says RFID companies are targeting captive audiences with their products.

"They're going for prisons, they're going for the schools; they're going for the military; they're going for the people who are not in a position to say ‘no’," Albrecht told The NewStandard. "And who is less in a position to say ‘no’ than a child? I think it's absolutely unconscionable, absolutely unethical."

The NIJ also asks grant applicants to develop proposals for "low-level force devices."

New York City Detective Kevin Czartorysky says low-level force, or non-lethal devices currently used by law enforcement include batons, mace, pepper spray, beanbag launchers, and Taser electroshock weapons. However, he adds that these devices would likely draw sharp criticism if used in schools.

The NIJ says candidate weapons should be "inherently safe, causing no long-term or permanent injury" and "should also not engender objection from the public, the media or government."

The Safest Place to Be

While school administrators justify the use of RFID and other high-tech systems to protect children and facilities, some question whether more security in schools is even necessary.

Frank Zimring, a University of California at Berkley law professor and author of several books on youth violence, says that whether adolescents are rich or poor, school is the safest place they can be.

Indeed, crime in school has been falling since the early 1990s. According to information released by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics in late November, one percent of students reported being a victim of violence in school. Between July 2001 and June 2002, there were seventeen homicides and five suicides on school property for school-aged youth in the United States between the ages of five and 19. The study also found declining rates of school fights, lower percentages of students bringing weapons to school and less overall fear at school.

"If you try to create too much security in a school setting, you’re going to make it a branch of the law enforcement enterprise instead of a branch of the educational enterprise," said Zimring.

Federal Government and RFID

The government’s use of RFID technology is expanding. The US government has used RFID technology in Department of Defense for more than two decades, and this year, the Department of Homeland Security started a pilot program to track immigrants by putting RFID chips in visas.

But the money flows both ways. Accenture, a global consulting and technology company that specializes in RFID, was the top business services contributor during the 2004 election cycle, with its owners and employees giving approximately $778,589 to federal candidates, 69 percent of which went to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And Deloitte & Touche, a global accounting and consulting company that helps companies implement RFID technologies, gave more than $2.2 million to candidates in the 2004 cycle, 71 percent to Republicans.

An explanation for the increasing use of RFID technology by federal bodies could be found in a government document discovered by CASPIAN, the RFID watchdog group – and it may have less to do with actual need than with supporting the private interests that support politicians. A December 2004 bulletin from the General Services Administration, which manages federal purchasing, encourages agencies "to consider action that can be taken to advance the industry by demonstrating the long-term intent of the agency to adopt RFID technological solutions."

In a statement released shortly after the bulletin was discovered, Albrecht criticized the government for finding "excuses to purchase and promote controversial technology at taxpayers’ expense."

The deadline for the federal "School Safety Technologies" grant applications was November 25, and the full review and approval process takes six to eight months. NIJ spokesperson Sanders would not say how much funding will be made available or disclose the number of proposals received.

Meanwhile, Tien and Albrecht continue to raise awareness about what they see as the dangers of tracking technology and the lowering threshold for permissible government surveillance.

"The burden of proof is no longer on someone who wants to institute surveillance, but rather on those who object to it," Tien told TNS with regret. "And I think that's a big change in the way people look at social privacy."

Albrecht believes that today’s adults – as members of the last generations to enjoy privacy and anonymity – have a huge responsibility in fighting for responsible uses of technology. "If a generation of school children grows up accepting as perfectly normal the idea that someone would and should be able to watch and keep track of where you are, as adults those people are going to have no concept whatsoever of the kind of privacy that you and I take for granted," said Albrecht. "And that would be a huge loss."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

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