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Town Gives Brave New World an F
When an elementary school required students to wear radio frequency IDs, some parents saw the specter of Big Brother.
SUTTER, Calif. — This little Northern California farm town is blissfully unaccustomed to turmoil. But recent weeks dished up a hopper of dissent.
It started with a girl who went home from junior high saying she felt like an orange.
Lauren Tatro, 13, told her parents the plain facts. Every student at Brittan Elementary School had to wear a badge the size of an index card with their name, grade, photo — and a tiny radio identification tag. The purpose was to test a new high-tech attendance system. To the eighth-grader, it seemed students had been turned into grocery items on the shelf, slabs of sirloin at the meat counter, fruit in the produce section.
So began a difficult stretch for this town of 2,885.
Outraged parents claimed the school was trampling their children's privacy and civil liberties, maybe even threatening their health. School board meetings overflowed. Folks talked of George Orwell, Big Brother and the Bible. The American Civil Liberties Union joined the fray. Parents picketed. TV news crews from as far away as Germany descended on the 600-student school.
At odds as they have been few times before, Sutter residents were dragged into a simmering national debate over the use of tracking technology on human beings.
Known as radio frequency identification, RFID for short, the technology has been around for decades. But only lately have big markets blossomed. Radio identification has been embraced by manufacturers and retailers to track inventory, deployed on bridges to automatically collect tolls and used on ranches to cull cattle. The microchips have been injected into pets.
But applying that technology in conjunction with people prompts an outcry from civil libertarians and privacy advocates. Proposals to use the high-tech ID tags in U.S. passports, Virginia driver's licenses and even San Francisco library books have drawn sharp fire. The ACLU characterizes such forays as the "seemingly inexorable drift toward a surveillance society."
Add schoolchildren to the list.
Critics in Sutter, an hour's drive north of Sacramento, say the aim at Brittan Elementary might have been an amped-up attendance system, but the badges, hung on lanyards that the students wore around their necks, represented something far more disturbing.
As some parents figured it, their children had been made high-tech guinea pigs.
Sutter is located a mile off a highway big-city folks don't normally travel. Farm fields flank a tidy grid of two-lane streets. The nearest traffic light is miles away in Yuba City.
Mostly it's a place of multigenerational families, some dating to the 1880s, with a smattering of newcomers. Folks meet and greet on the streets — and mostly they get along.
Given the tranquil community sensibilities, school officials never anticipated controversy.
Earnie Graham, principal and superintendent of the one-school district, is a self-described "tech guy." He liked the badge idea because it would streamline the taking of attendance, giving teachers a few minutes more each day to teach and boost accuracy, no small matter given that California school funding is based on how many children attend class each day.
Aside from boldly going where no principal had gone before, Graham figured the new technology held an additional appeal: Homegrown talent was promoting it.
The founders of InCom Corp., the start-up firm marketing the idea, work at local schools or have children who attend them. They formed the firm about a year ago and paid the district $2,500 to test the system during summer school.
It went without a hitch. Each RFID has a miniature antenna connected to a tiny computer chip identifying the wearer.
When students walked into class, an RFID scanner mounted above the door recorded it, pumped out the roll on a teacher's wireless Palm Pilot and stored the attendance figures on a central computer.
Impressed, school trustees last October agreed to expand the project. They held a public hearing, but virtually no parents attended. In exchange for allowing it on campus, InCom promised unspecified royalties from future sales.
On Jan. 18, every student at the kindergarten-through-eighth grade school got a badge, though scanners were installed only in seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms.
Most of the pupils accepted it at first, but a few griped to their parents.
Mike and Dawn Cantrall, parents of two Brittan students, met with Graham to complain about the badges' having student photos and names, saying the information made them vulnerable to predators.
Only then did they learn about the radio tags inside.
The family asked that their children be excluded from the test.
"Our children are not inventory," the Cantralls said in a letter to the district. They said the monitoring program smacked of Big Brother. They also cited biblical warnings about the mark of the beast.
School administrators said the program was mandatory and threatened to discipline — even expel — students who didn't wear their badges.
Within days, news of the tussle in Sutter reached the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups concerned about electronic surveillance.
They waded in to warn the district in a Feb. 7 letter that radio ID badges could put children at risk to stalkers with scanners. They also noted that Brittan Elementary had no history of security or attendance problems. Each child had become "a walking homing beacon," said Nicole Ozer of the ACLU. "It's a very slippery slope this district set out on," indoctrinating children to a life under surveillance.
Graham, the principal, called it rhetorical overkill.
The only information contained on each student's identification badge was a 15-digit number. All their personal information was safely stowed in the school computer, he said.
In classes and on the playground, the hubbub intensified. When word leaked, TV news crews trolled campus. Some students, amplifying their parent's opposition, performed a bit of monkey-wrenching. They took to biting through the plastic badges and pulling out the antennas and microchips.
"They're really ugly, really big, and I hate them," summarized Madison Mason, an eighth-grader, who dressed up her badge with smiley face stickers.
"I got hit in the head by it in P.E.," chimed in a friend.
"It's like we're in prison," said another.
After a rambunctious Feb. 8 board meeting, InCom opted to turn off the scanners until the board resolved the squabbling.
As school let out before last week's board meeting, foes prowled either side of campus with picket signs. "Badges … badges…. We Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges," said one.
Toni Scrogin was among the picketers. "I have not been convinced this is safe for my child," she said.
"There's no research on this around humans." And neither the school nor InCom had many answers, she said.
Eric Shepherd, father of a third-grader, scoffed at Scrogin and her sign.
"Our kids are more at risk walking down the street than wearing these badges," he griped to the picketers. "This is paranoia! I trust Earnie, I trust the board and I trust what they're trying to do."
Scrogin and Carrie VanOosterhaut yelled back about health worries. Lisa Ziegenmeyer, mother of three girls, told Shepherd the school was tagging kids children "like cattle."
Shepherd walked off shaking his head. "This was a little town where everyone looked after everyone else," he muttered. "But this is ridiculous."
Parents flocked to a board meeting Feb. 15. A hundred chairs were set out, but the crowd flowed out the doors. Oxygen ebbed, the heat rose and angry voices cascaded. Few bothered introducing themselves — most everyone knew everyone.
This had the makings of a family quarrel, 150 souls strong.
And then the InCom team pulled the plug.
Doug Ahlers, a high school teacher and one of InCom's founders, read a prepared statement. Given the community dissent and concerns, the company had decided to terminate the test. The firm's "only regret," he told the hushed crowd, was that the district would not reap the promised royalties from future InCom sales.
"This is a sad day for this school," said Tina Jones. Her kindergarten son didn't see the badge as a nuisance. It made him feel safer.
Others argued that the stakes were bigger than the feelings of a little boy. "This is about more than just this one district," said Ozer of the ACLU.
Civil libertarians are worried over the potential uses and misuses of RFID — concerns that were once within the realm of science fiction. Authorities could use RFID to identify protesters at rallies, they say. Terrorists abroad could pick out Americans. Kidnappers might be able to track the child of a billionaire.
The ACLU is pressing for state legislation curbing use of RFID technology in personal identification. Ozer worries about the identification tags' being embraced in other districts, as well as in hospitals, motor vehicle departments and credit companies.
Precedent is already being set for her fears. Ever since InCom's name began appearing on TV and in newspaper stories around the country, the phone hasn't stopped ringing. Many are callers from school districts wanting to adopt the technology. Ahlers said he won't be surprised if some states eventually require the technology in schools.
"This has been a very, very good experience," he said. "They spelled our name right and spread it across the country."