SPRING, Texas--In front of her gated apartment complex, Courtney Payne, a 9-year-old fourth grader with dark hair pulled tightly into a ponytail, exits a yellow school bus.
Moments later, her movement is observed by Alan Bragg, the local police chief, standing in a windowless control room more than a mile away.
Chief Bragg is not using video surveillance. Rather, he watches an icon on a computer screen. The icon marks the spot on a map where Courtney got off the bus, and, on a larger level, it represents the latest in the convergence of technology and student security.
Hoping to prevent the loss of a child through kidnapping or more innocent circumstances, a few schools have begun monitoring student arrivals and departures using technology similar to that used to track livestock and pallets of retail shipments.
Here in a growing middle- and working-class suburb just north of Houston, the effort is undergoing its most ambitious test. The Spring Independent School District is equipping 28,000 students with ID badges containing computer chips that are read when the students get on and off school buses. The information is fed automatically by wireless phone to the police and school administrators.
In a variation on the concept, a Phoenix school district in November is starting a project using fingerprint technology to track when and where students get on and off buses. Last year, a charter school in Buffalo began automating attendance counts with computerized ID badges--one of the earliest examples of what educators said could become a widespread trend.
At the Spring district, where no student has ever been kidnapped, the system is expected to be used for more pedestrian purposes, Chief Bragg said: to reassure frantic parents, for example, calling because their child, rather than coming home as expected, went to a friend's house, an extracurricular activity or a Girl Scout meeting.
When the district unanimously approved the $180,000 system, neither teachers nor parents objected, said the president of the board. Rather, parents appear to be applauding. "I'm sure we're being overprotective, but you hear about all this violence," said Elisa Temple-Harvey, 34, the parent of a fourth grader. "I'm not saying this will curtail it, or stop it, but at least I know she made it to campus."
The project also is in keeping with the high-tech leanings of the district, which built its own high-speed data network and is outfitting the schools with wireless Internet access. A handful of companies have adapted the technology for use in schools.
But there are critics, including some older students and privacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, who argue that the system is security paranoia.
The decades-old technology, called radio frequency identification, or RFID, is growing less expensive and developing vast new capabilities. It is based on a computer chip that has a unique number programmed into it and contains a tiny antenna that sends information to a reader.
The same technology is being used by companies like Wal-Mart to track pallets of retail items. Pet owners can have chips embedded in cats and dogs to identify them if they are lost.
In October, the Food and Drug Administration approved use of an RFID chip that could be implanted under a patient's skin and would carry a number that linked to the patient's medical records.
At the Spring district, the first recipients of the computerized ID badges have been the 626 students of Bammel Elementary school. That includes Felipe Mathews, a 5-year-old kindergartner, and the other 30 students who rode bus No. 38 to school on a recent morning.
Felipe, wearing a gray, hooded sweatshirt with a Spiderman logo and blue high-top tennis shoes also with a Spiderman logo, wore his yellow ID badge on a string around his neck. When he climbed on to the bus, he pressed the badge against a flat gray "reader" just inside the bus door. The reader ID beeped.
Shortly after, he was followed onto the bus by Christopher Nunez, a 9-year-old fourth grader. Christopher said it was important that students wore badges so they did not get lost. Asked what might cause someone to get lost, he said, "If they're in second grade they might not know which street is their home."
But on the morning Felipe and Christopher shared a seat on bus No. 38, the district experienced one of the early technology hiccups. When the bus arrived at school, the system had not worked. On the Web site that includes the log of student movements, there was no record that any of the students on the bus had arrived.
It was just one of many headaches; the system had also made double entries for some students, and got arrival times and addresses wrong for others. "It's early glitches," said Brian Weisinger, the head of transportation for the Spring district, adding that he expected to work out the problems.
But for the Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, where administrators gave ID cards with the RFID technology to around 460 students last year, the computer problems lasted for many months.
The system is set up so that when students walk in the door each morning, they pass by one of two kiosks which together cost $40,000--designed to pick up their individual radio frequency numbers as a way of taking attendance. Initially, though, the kiosks failed to register some students, or registered ones who were not there.
Mark Walter, head of technology for the Buffalo school, said the system was working well now. But Walter cautions that the more ambitious technological efforts in Spring, particularly given the reliance on cell phones to call in the data, are "going to run in to some problems."
In the long run, however, the biggest problem may be human error. Parents, teachers and administrators said their primary worry is getting students to remember their cards, given they often forget such basics as backpacks, lunch money and gym shoes. And then there might be mischief: Students could trade their cards.
Still, administrators in Buffalo said they had been contacted by districts around the country, and from numerous other countries, interested in using something similar.
And the administrators in Buffalo and here in Spring said the technology, when perfected, would eventually be a big help. Parents at the Spring district seem to feel the same way. They speak of momentary horrors of realizing their child did not arrive home when expected.
Some older students are not so enthusiastic.
"It's too Big Brother for me," said Kenneth Haines, a 15-year-old ninth grader who is on the football and debate teams. "Something about the school wanting to know the exact place and time makes me feel kind of like an animal."
Middle and high school students already wear ID badges, but they have not yet been equipped with the RFID technology. Even so, some bus drivers are apparently taking advantage of the technology's mythical powers by telling students that they are being tracked on the bus in order to get them to behave better.
Kenneth's opinion is echoed by organizations like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes "digital rights."
It is "naive to believe all this data will only be used to track children in the extremely unlikely event of the rare kidnapping by a stranger," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the ACLU.
Steinhardt said schools, once they had invested in the technology, could feel compelled to get a greater return on investment by putting it to other uses, like tracking where students go after school.
Advocates of the technology said they did not plan to go that far. But, they said, they do see broader possibilities, such as implanting RFID tags under the skin of children to avoid problems with lost or forgotten tags. More immediately, they said, they could see using the technology to track whether students attend individual classes.
Weisinger, the head of transportation at Spring, said that, for now, the district could not afford not to put the technology to use. Chief Bragg said the key to catching kidnappers was getting crucial information within two to four hours of a crime--information such as the last place the child was seen."We've been fortunate; we haven't had a kidnapping," Weisinger said. "But if it works one time finding a student who has been kidnapped, then the system has paid for itself."
It's one of the cutest of those cute IBM Corp. TV commercials, the ones
that feature the ever-present help desk. This time, the desk appears smack in
the middle of a highway, blocking the path of a big rig.
"Why are you blocking the road?" the driver asks. "Because you're going the wrong way," replies the cheerful Help Desk lady. "Your cargo told me so." It seems the cartons inside the truck contained IBM technology that alerted the company when the driver made a wrong turn.
It's clever, all right -- and creepy. Because the technology needn't be applied only to cases of beer. The trackers could be attached to every can of beer in the case, and allow marketers to track the boozing habits of the purchasers. Or if the cargo is clothing, those little trackers could have been stitched inside every last sweater. Then some high-tech busybody could keep those wearing them under surveillance.
If this sounds paranoid, take it up with IBM. The company filed a patent application in 2001 which contemplates using this wireless snooping technology to track people as they roam through "shopping malls, airports, train stations, bus stations, elevators, trains, airplanes, rest rooms, sports arenas, libraries, theaters, museums, etc." An IBM spokeswoman insisted the company isn't really prepared to go this far. Patent applications are routinely written to include every possible use of a technology, even some the company doesn't intend to pursue. Still, it's clear somebody at IBM has a pretty creepy imagination.
And it's not just IBM. A host of other companies are looking at ways to embed surveillance chips into practically everything we purchase -- and even into our bodies. It's a prospect that infuriates Harvard graduate student Katherine Albrecht.
"I think the shocking part is they've spent the past three years saying, oh no, we'd never do this," Albrecht said. But instead of taking their word for it, Albrecht and her colleague, former bank examiner Liz McIntyre, began reading everything they could find on the subject. Now they're serving up the scary results of their research in a scathing new book, "Spychips."
That's Albrecht's preferred name for a technology called radio frequency identification technology, or RFID. If you use a Mobil Speedpass to pay for gasoline, you're already using RFID. Your Speedpass contains a microchip and a small antenna that allows it to broadcast information to a receiver. The chip has no power source of its own. Instead, it picks up radio signals from an RFID chip reader, turns these radio waves into electricity, and uses the power to broadcast data to the reader.
Because they need no batteries, RFID chips can be made small enough to attach invisibly to practically anything. One company is even working on a way to print RFID chips onto newspapers, using electrically conductive ink.
Why is this so scary? Because so many of us pay for our purchases with credit or debit cards, which contain our names, addresses, and other sensitive information. Now imagine a store with RFID chips embedded in every product. At checkout time, the digital code in each item is associated with our credit card data. From now on, that particular pair of shoes or carton of cigarettes is associated with you. Even if you throw them away, the RFID chips will survive. Indeed, Albrecht and McIntyre learned that the phone company BellSouth Corp. had applied for a patent on a system for scanning RFID tags in trash, and using the data to study the shopping patterns of individual consumers.
"Spychips" reveals a US government plan to order RFID chips embedded in all cars sold in America. No big deal -- until you realize the police could then track your comings and goings by putting inexpensive RFID readers at key intersections.
Then there are the RFID pajamas from a California maker of children's clothing. It's a clever way to prevent kidnapping: Just put RFID readers in your home, to alert you if Junior's taking an unauthorized trip. It's easy to imagine parents buying into this idea, but they'll now have to install RFID readers in their homes. ''There's the nose in the camel's tent," said Albrecht. At first, companies will just scan your kids' jammies. But later they'll ask permission to scan the tags on your groceries and your clothes. The consulting company Accenture has patented a design that builds an RFID reader into a household medicine cabinet, to make sure you're taking all your medications.
There are countless applications for RFID, and viewed in isolation, some are downright appealing. It would be nice for the medicine cabinet to send you an e-mail -- "Time to buy more Viagra." But what if it's also sending that data to consumer marketing companies, eager to bombard you with unwanted advertising? Worse yet, what if they're sending the data to government investigators, or to hackers who've figured out how to break into the system?
Not to worry, said Jack Grasso, spokesman for EPC Global of Lawrenceville, N.J.,, the nonprofit organization that sets technical standards for RFID systems. His organization has a code of ethics that requires notifying consumers about the presence of RFID tags. The group also recognizes the right of consumers to deactivate RFID tags, and is working to develop systems to make this easy.
So how about putting these principles into law? No thanks, said Grasso. "We believe it is far too early." Because the RFID industry is so young, any regulation "would have a chilling effect that would put us back years."
And that's a bad thing?
Somebody needs to sit down and think this through. Dozens of companies and government agencies are planning to use RFID to track nearly every move we make. And although many of the individual applications make sense, what would happen if they were all implemented, without oversight or restraint? We'd then live in a world in which everything we own gossips about us behind our backs.
And it would be too late to call the IBM Help Desk to ask for our privacy back.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.