Private lives, public surveillance

An example of a Tracker Device

Whether people think about this election’s hot button issues in this framework or not, many of our country’s so-called “social issues” are issues of privacy. While lawmakers fought over the economic and religious implications of hot topics like gay marriage, abortion, health care and cybersecurity, they were essentially deciding what level of privacy Americans should be entitled to under the law, and how strictly the Constitution should be interpreted to provide or deny that privacy.

I thought about this struggle between the private lives of citizens and the public decisions of legislators and administrations when I saw a story from Texas about high school sophomore Natalie Hernandez suing her school following her expulsion. Hernandez was expelled from her high school because she refused to wear her school’s name badge, which contains an RFID tracking device. Hernandez says the badge violates her religion – the badge is considered a “mark of the beast” – and by forcing her to wear it, the school district is violating her 1st Amendment rights. After the school offered her a name badge without the tracking device, which she refused, the school expelled her.

I think the religious aspect of this case is not as important as the general question of privacy . Yes, the “mark of the beast” claim allows Hernandez to make a First Amendment argument, and in cases like Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court has made exceptions for religious beliefs in public education before. But there’s more to this case than a school wanting to know where a student is, and a Christian student refusing to let them because of religious reasons. This case is a sign of privacy debates in the age of technology.

The obvious conflict in this case is the right to privacy of the students, versus the necessity of tracking them of the administration. The school district argues that the RFID trackers are meant to keep students on the school premises during school hours, and to make sure that they’re in class when they should be. The students argue that the school is unnecessarily tracking their every move for reasons that could easily be solved by other solutions – and if the feed were accessible to others outside the school, they could put students in danger by making all of their movements traceable.

The second conflict is the how free schools are to begin with. With regards to constitutional rights to expression and privacy, schools are considered special places – they’re grouped with prisons and military bases in legal terms (prisons also often require tracking devices). And while the US Supreme Court decided that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” in Tinker vs. Des Moines, schools can still do things like search students’ lockers, place restrictions on their school newspapers, and limit free expression by implementing and enforcing dress codes because they must balance the rights of the students with the order and safety of the school.

It makes sense that teachers and school administrators would want to know where students are when they’re at school – if they’re cutting P.E. and hanging out in the bathroom, or lingering a little longer at lunch than they should. But the attendance-boosting RFID cards aren’t foolproof – what’s to say a student can’t pass off their ID card to a friend to carry around for the day? Furthermore, can’t teachers just pay attention to who is present and who isn’t by taking attendance, and making a round of the hallways once and again? It would certainly save money, those trackers can’t be cheap.

To make students wear these tracking devices sets a dangerous precedent for limiting students’ privacy even further within an already restricted space, and put schools closer to prisons on the legal privacy spectrum. It takes accountability away from students, who should show up to class of their own volition, and takes away accountability from teachers, who should be paying attention to keeping students in class. Perhaps this method of tracking could be used at schools for at-risk students or juvenile facilities where students have made past infractions and require more attention, but it’s excessive for the average kid at a public school that took longer to get to class than his peers.

Furthermore, Constitutional precedent only allows an invasion of students’ privacy to keep school order and to protect students’ safety. And while the RFID device does help to find where students are at all times and helps the administration ensure that students are in class when they say they are, this tracker badge requirement invades a student’s privacy more than necessary for a school to keep order– it’s a disproportionate response, and shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

2 replies »

  1. Court cases aside, I’ve never been sure about the idea that children ought to have the full range of Constitutional protections. Not saying we ought to be allowed to treat them like chattel, but there are plenty of ways that we seem to have agreed it’s okay limiting what they can do. Driving, drinking, going to see R-rated films, etc. I personally am okay tracking them with non-invasive tech, although the idea that someone else could get their hands on this info, putting the students at risk, is a concern. Then again, no matter who has access to the info, the kids are theoretically less at risk if they’re where they’re supposed to be, right?

    I’m also uneasy with the persistent idea that teachers ought to be security guards. I know there’s an element of the inevitable about this, but given the state of ed in America, all I really want teachers worried about is TEACHING.