Thursday, February 10, 2005

RFID Madness: Let's Brand the Children!

Oh man, sometimes I feel that big, big rock's rolling back on me.Can you believe this? (Kos) A school in California has decided to make all the kiddies wear badges containing RFID chips so they can follow them everywhere. What a good idea! According to this AP story, the detectors are placed in the entrances of all classrooms so the school, and any hackers who may pass by, knows exactly which kids are in which classrooms. Hold on, they had a system very like this when I was at school! It was called - a register! And it must have cost all of £10 a year in notepads and biros to run. Well, thank God we've got expensive and unnecessary electronics to save all that taxpayers' money.

As is the way of these things, the head is trying to talk down the proposal whilst evidently being mad keen to expand it for all it's worth. On the one hand, he says only the 7th and 8th grades are actually being monitored and that "they merely confirm that each child is in his or her classroom, rather than track them around the school like a global-positioning device". On the other hand, everyone's got to wear'em and he wants to place readers in the toilets too.

This is of course deeply stupid. For a start, global positioning devices do not track anybody anywhere - contrary to popular belief, a GPS receiver tracks the satellites not vice versa. (The clue's in the "receiver" bit.) Secondly, if you can monitor movement in and out of the classrooms and the toilets (and possibly also the dining hall and the library) then you've already got near-total coverage of most school buildings. Thirdly, if you can read an RFID so can anybody else with the equipment - policemen, paedophiles, Cory Doctorow or - who knows? - me. Fourthly, if the point is to "increase student safety", why are they on badges? Presumably if you are evil enough to kidnap schoolchildren, you will be sufficiently ruthless to...take the badge off the child! (You think? That's crazy talk!)

But, as usual with schools, the headmaster has one all-purpose argument to fall back on:
" What's more, he says that it is within his power to set rules that promote a positive school environment: If he thinks ID badges will improve things, he says, then badges there will be.

"You know what it comes down to? I believe junior high students want to be stylish. This is not stylish," he said."
Why? Because I tell you! Ah, happy days. This reminds me of an incident at my own school, where two girls who donned Comic Relief red noses for a class photo were retouched out of the picture like the victims of a Soviet purge. I certainly wouldn't put having all the kids bugged past Mr. Gasper, Deputy Head (Discipline), for example.

Mind you, as Woodward and Bernstein would have put it, follow the money. As is very often the case, the RFID system's manufacturers have added several thousand papery green reasons to their argument in favour of mass surveillance: tag your children and we'll give you a lot of money!
" This latest adaptation of radio frequency ID technology was developed by InCom Corp., a local company co-founded by the parent of a former Brittan student, and some parents are suspicious about the financial relationship between the school and the company. InCom plans to promote it at a national convention of school administrators next month.

InCom has paid the school several thousand dollars for agreeing to the experiment, and has promised a royalty from each sale if the system takes off, said the company's co-founder, Michael Dobson, who works as a technology specialist in the town's high school. Brittan's technology aide also works part-time for InCom."
Smell that? That's the sweet smell of municipal corruption drifting up from your keyboard, no?

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