The Dystopic Surveillance School Is Already In Session!

by zunguzungu

(photo by Jerry Baker, Chronicle)

Should I not be so surprised to see how many little seedlings of this technology are popping up? As always, it’s not what’s being done that matters, so much as how it’s being done and for what purpose. But as of 2008, Radio Frequency technology (RFID) is being used to track middle school students in Houston:

Two school districts in the Houston area have begun monitoring students’ whereabouts on campus by issuing them identification badges with radio frequency identification technology – the same technology used to track cattle…School officials say the devices improve security and increase attendance rates, a figure that’s important because some school funding is tied to attendance…The technology easily pays for itself within about three years at secondary schools, [Christine Porter, Spring’s associate superintendent for financial services] said. “It’s a wonderful asset,” said Veronica Vijil, principal of Bailey Middle School in Spring.

Many students already are used to being electronically monitored. Some campuses have had surveillance cameras for years. “It feels like someone’s watching you at all times,” said Jacorey Jackson, 11, a sixth-grader at Bailey.

It’s a success because it’s saving the school money. And let’s not forget that replacing human supervision with electronic surveillance will also save money, as this CNN report on the George Miller III Head Start program in Richmond, California repeatedly emphasizes (using the unfortunate phrase “something akin to an inventory system”). George Miller got a $115,000 federal grant to do this, and last year got started on its 200 3 to 5 year old preschoolers. Note the primacy of financial considerations in this language:

According to Karen Mitchoof, public information officer for the Contra Costa Employment and Human Services Department, the primary goal of the technology is to supplement safety and to track Federally mandated statistics required for the Headstart program…[T]he Headstart site was able to deploy an array of sensors throughout the site to read signals emitted by RFID transmitters embedded in jerseys to be worn by students. The George Miller III site, which cost $50,000 to deploy, is the first of three possible sites slated for this program. Other sites will be added based on considerations such as the physical layout of the site.

When asked about who will have access to the data collected, Mitchoof responded “the staff will have real time information for each student. So if a student wonders off outside of an authorized area, alarms will sound to alert staff of the event.” She further points out that RFID technology is in no way a substitute for human monitoring adding “it is a tool to supplement what teachers already do manually on paper and the same teachers will still physically be there to track and monitor students.”

As the Electronic Freedom Frontier responded:

[A]n RFID chip allows for far more than that minimal record-keeping. Instead, it provides the potential for nearly constant monitoring of a child’s physical location. If readings are taken often enough, you could create an extraordinarily detailed portrait of a child’s school day — one that’s easy to imagine being misused, particularly as the chips substitute for direct adult monitoring and judgment. If RFID records show a child moving around a lot, could she be tagged as hyper-active? If he doesn’t move around a lot, could he get a reputation for laziness? How long will this data and the conclusions rightly or wrongly drawn from it be stored in these children’s school records? Can parents opt-out of this invasive tracking? How many other federal grants are underwriting programs like these?

Even more telling, check out this story of how a couple of entrepreneurial high school teachers in California founded a company to make RFID chips, way back in 2005, and used the students at their own high school as training subjects, while trying very hard not to let the parents have the opportunity to say say no. Cooler heads flipped out and prevailed:

School superintendents struck a deal with a local maker of the technology last year to test the system to track attendance and weed out trespassers…The InClass RFID system was developed by two local high school teachers in Sutter, California, who helped found the company, InCom, that markets the system. Last year, the company approached the principal and superintendent of Brittan Elementary School District with the idea of testing InClass. The company offered the elementary school a donation of “a couple thousand dollars,” according to the school’s attorney, Paul Nicholas Boylan, as compensation for possible inconveniences caused by the test.

But students and parents, who weren’t told about the RFID chips until they complained, are upset over what they say are surreptitious tactics the school used to implement the program. They also question the ethics of a monetary deal the school made with the company to test and promote its product, using students as guinea pigs. “This is not right for our kids,” said Michele Tatro, whose daughter received a badge. “I’m not willing for anybody to track me and I don’t think my children should be tracked, either.”

[W]hen principal Earnie Graham distributed the badges, he didn’t mention the RFID chips in them or give students a choice about wearing the badges. “Students asked questions,” Tatro said, “but they couldn’t really be answered very well. We got just the basics of what they were but nothing about the tracking.”

A week after receiving parent complaints, the school scheduled a gathering to demonstrate the technology and answer questions, but notified parents only a day in advance. “We’re not opposed to technology,” Tatro said. “We’re opposed to the way they’re applying the technology. This is a test bed (to gauge) public acceptance of this. If they get away with it here, somebody else will try something even more invasive somewhere else.”

In the UK, the Department for Education and Skills is also “keen to promote use of electronic registration in schools because of its benefits in efficiently monitoring pupils’ attendance and the speedy retrieval and analysis of data,” though here, note that the way in will be through the school uniform market:

“The system saves valuable lesson time, often wasted in registration and monitoring, while ensuring parents of their children’s security. And there’s the additional benefit of reduced costs in replacing school uniforms that have gone astray.”

The Hungerhill trial has been “successful,” he added. Darnbro isn’t the only firm with sights set on high-tech blazers. In August Lancashire-based Trutex, “Britain’s favourite schoolwear supplier,” announced its own plans to chip schoolchildren.

Also, from that article on Trutex — because it’s too good not to note — why not make school uniforms into armor?:

The announcement follows news that an Essex firm, BladeRunner, used Kevlar, a synthetic fibre used in body armour, to line school uniforms sent in by parents anxious about knife culture. Barry Samms, a director, said the company was concentrating on its line of stab-proof hooded tops, having sold about 1,500 of the £65 garment, mainly to over-30s, since launch earlier this year. The company was now selling £120 tops to walkers and mountain-bikers worried about barbed-wire snags.

The fact that schemes like these seem reasonable — seriously, armoring and bugging students? — at the same time that teachers are being laid off left and right, is one of the best examples you could want of the ways the welfare state is being or has been replaced by securitization and surveillance theater, how the sort of rational insanity that Loïc Wacquant talks about here with respect to policing has spread far beyond criminology.