Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Schools Requiring Students to Wear RFID Trackers...

In November, a high school student named Andrea Hernandez was suspended for refusing to wear the ID badge that her school requires.  Now, many schools issue some type of ID card, however this school in particular issued their ID card with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip embedded within it.  It enables school administrators to track the location of each student on campus at all times.

With the ongoing debate about enhancing public safety in schools - mostly centered on gun control - where does this case of mandatory RFID trackers fit in?  The school district argues that these chips are also needed for ensuring the safety of students, however, how can such concerns over safety be reasonably reconciled with other valid concerns regarding individual privacy?

Earlier this month, the case went to federal court and U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia dismissed Hernandez's request for a preliminary injunction - basically upholding the school's ability to require RFID cards.

But before everyone assumes that privacy is dead and that Big Brother has finally arrived, it should be noted that the case isn't as simple as that.

First of all, the school offered Hernandez a compromise - that she would still have to wear the ID badge, but could have the RFID chip removed.  Hernandez refused.  The judge noted that this seriously undermined her claim.

Second, and this is especially interesting, Hernandez wasn't arguing that the RFID card violated her rights to privacy, but rather that it violated her religious freedom.  Her evangelical Christian father, Steven Hernandez, had equated the badges to the Biblical "mark of the beast", and it was on those grounds that the injunction was dismissed.

So the privacy issue is still very much undetermined. 

While some privacy advocates have commented on how that's a shame, perhaps it's actually a blessing in disguise.  Rather than getting a comprehensive and precedent-setting ruling on privacy rights, in a case where an intractable plaintiff has rejected a very reasonable compromise, it may suit privacy advocates better in the long run to wait for a case where it's the school district who refuses to budge and comes across as far more totalitarian.

And that's what everyone should remember about this case, despite the headlines.  In the end, the school did not require the RFID tracker.  Better to seek a privacy ruling on a case where they did.



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