At the Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, N.Y., a controversial new technology is now in play that administrators say can detect whether students are in school or playing hooky using microchips embedded inside their student ID cards.

The tiny identifiers are known as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags–inexpensive computer chips uploaded with personal information about individual students and monitored by an electronic reader located just inside the entrance to the school.

Proponents of the technology say the chips–viewed by many as next-generation bar codes–will help automate administrative tasks from the front office to the lunch line, enabling educators to spend less time filling in their grade books and more time on instruction. But some privacy experts fear the devices, if used to their full potential, would tread on the personal rights of students by providing a means to monitor their every move.

Gary Stillman, the school’s director, says he was drawn to the technology not for its potential to spy on students, but for its ability to assist in what otherwise would be a very labor-intensive hassle: keeping attendance.

“The idea was to speed up the process so that teachers would be able to spend more time on task,” he said.

All 422 students enrolled in this inner-city K-8 institution are required to wear the tags, which are embedded into the photo identification badges draped around their necks. When students arrive at school, they must present their ID card in front of an electronic kiosk. Once their names are verified by the RFID reader, their photos appear on the screen. Students must touch their photos to confirm their entrance into the building. This information is then forwarded to the school’s database for attendance records, and a copy is provided in real time to all classroom teachers.

Faculty members also wear the tags, outfitted with a special feature that enables them to open locked doors.

Unlike traditional bar codes, RFID devices do not require manual scanning. Rather, as long as the chips are within proximity of a reading device, they can be tracked via an electromagnetic signal.

Each RFID tag contains a microchip capable of housing the individual names, attendance records, and account information for each student. When students approach the kiosk, these data automatically are registered by an RFID reader, or antenna, installed in the kiosk and are beamed to a server that records the information and makes it accessible from a central database. That way, when homeroom teachers pull up their class rosters on the computer, they can see whether or not a student has checked in for the day.

In all, Stillman said the school spent approximately $25,000 on its initial investment. The most expensive piece was the multipurpose kiosk with the RFID reader installed. That device, which doubles as a touch-screen display for school news and information, sells for $4,000, according to David Straitiff, president and chief executive officer at Intuitek, the Buffalo-based systems integration firm responsible for supplying the technology. The chips themselves sell for between $2 and $3 apiece–a price Straitiff said was comparable to the cost of other types of security access cards used in schools today.

Enterprise is believed to be the first school in the nation to use RFID technology to track student attendance. The chip Intuitek uses in its student nametags is manufactured by electronics giant Texas Instruments. Other big-name companies, including Philips Electronics, have begun selling similar devices.

RFID entered the national spotlight earlier this year when corporations such as Wal-Mart and clothing retailer Benetton began using the chips in favor of bar codes to monitor inventory and keep track of goods.

But in October, when officials at the San Francisco Public Library announced plans to track more than 2 million books, CDs, and audiovisual materials by inserting RFID chips into borrowed merchandise likely to find its way off the shelves and into people’s homes, privacy advocates sounded an alarm. (See “Book-tracking technology has critics speaking volumes,”

According to news reports, officials planned to use the chips primarily for streamlining inventory and checkout processes with promises to disable the technology once materials were removed from the library. However, privacy advocates questioned whether computer hackers–or possibly even law-enforcement agents–might find ways to reactivate the chips, thus enabling them to track people without their knowledge.

Despite the outcry, San Francisco officials say they plan to forge ahead with the program, which is expected to go live in 2005.

Whether or not the technology finds its way onto the shelves at public libraries, its critics contend that when it comes to schools and children, RFID chips cross a very delicate line.

“This is a technology usually reserved for prisoners in our society,” said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

In fact, the same kinds of chips have been used to keep tabs on inmates and are currently employed by the U.S. military to track prisoners of war in Iraq.

But where schools are concerned, Hoofnagle branded the technology “nonsensical waste.” At a time when schools nationwide are strapped for cash, who’s going to pay for a gizmo that essentially takes attendance, he asked rhetorically.

Beyond the bottom line, Hoofnagle fears the evolution of RFID tags in schools will make it harder for students to act as individuals. Though Enterprise is using the system only to record when students enter the building, the system theoretically could be set up track where students are inside the building at all times.

“The most fundamental risk is that when [people are] being watched, they tend to behave differently,” Hoofnagle said. “It comes down to issues of free will and authority. Clearly, there are some risks and harms worth avoiding here.”

Although proponents of RFID technology don’t deny certain privacy implications, they say these anxieties are overblown.

“Privacy is a serious concern and should be a concern with RFID,” acknowledged Intuitek’s Straitiff. “However, the current technology has a very limited range.”

In Buffalo, for example, the nametags students wear around their necks are only readable within a few feet of the kiosk. Outside of that, students can roam freely without fear of being monitored.

“We’re not adding any sort of technology that is really changing the paradigm here,” Straitiff said.

Stillman, too, shrugged off allegations that the technology could be used to spy on children. “I don’t have the money to put in secret readers everywhere,” he scoffed. “Why would I want to do that?”

Eventually, the school’s goal is to use the RFID cards to debit student lunch accounts, so kids who receive free and reduced-price lunches are spared the embarrassment of announcing their circumstances in front of their classmates. Using the cards to check out books in the school library is another possibility, but one not yet under consideration in Buffalo.

“The beauty of this whole thing is that one card could be used for multiple purposes,” Straitiff said. “So far, the feedback we’ve gotten has been very positive from parents and staff.”

See these related links:

Enterprise Charter School


Electronic Privacy Information Center