Please Hold the Inflammatory Rhetoric When it Comes to Controversial Issues

Electronic device for tracking schoolchildren offers a good example.

I've always been frustrated by people who, in an effort to state their case, use inflammatory comments to garner quick support for their point of view from people who generally haven't researched or thought the topic through.

These comments rarely, if ever, add anything useful to the debate. More often than not, they are designed to, and usually succeed at, taking focus away from the real issue — which is probably the original intent of the person making the comment. This tactic is used altogether too much in the political arena these days, I’m sad to say. Actually, quite often, it seems like it’s the only tactic being used in the political arena.

I have found that when I write articles on social issues and use political examples, people jump right into their own political views and tend to miss the point I was trying to make. So instead of heading into the political hurricane this time, I’ll use another example I recently read about in the news. A Texas school district has begun using RFID tags to monitor the whereabouts of children while in school. The use of this technology for this purpose is not new, but it is starting to create a bit of a controversy.

RFID tags are small electronic chips that give off a very weak radio signal. When the tag passes by a scanner, its information is recorded and sent to a computer. Each RFID tag can be coded with information like a unique ID number. Think of the “EZ Pass” system used for collecting tolls without needing to stop at the tollbooth. When a car passed through, the ID tag is read and the appropriate toll is subtracted from the user's account.

The basic idea in the schools is to use them for better control of attendance.  How much a school gets paid is directly proportional to the number of children who attend school on a given day. Schools that have started to use these chips have found that many children that had been marked as absent in the past have actually been in the school. They just haven’t been in the room while attendance was being taken. The RFID system takes all the guesswork out it.

Now, as with nearly all new use of technology, a number of people oppose this type of tracking of students while at school. They raise privacy concerns, health concerns, etc. Of course, these, and all issues, should be brought to the table to be discussed and reviewed, but always in the context of the larger issue, which should be the safety of our children. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually the case.

Marc Rotenberg is the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group concerned with issues of privacy in using the RFID tags with school students. Rotenberg said in a telephone interview, “We don’t think kids in schools should be treated like cattle”.

When I hear comments like these, it does nothing but take away any credibility the speaker might have had. Just because RFID tags have been used with cattle doesn't equate to our children being treated like cattle. It’s pretty lousy logic. But it's a good sound bite that will get plenty of press, and it’s sure rile up those who haven't thoroughly researched and thought through the situation. RFID tags are used for groceries and other forms of inventory control as well. But Rotenberg didn't say "treated like groceries." I guess "groceries" just doesn't have the same inflammatory effect that "cattle" does.

I don’t see any real privacy concerns in using these tags with schoolchildren. Schools are supposed to know where their students are at all times throughout the day. Nothing changes except for the precision and detail of that knowledge. I’m thinking that Rotenberg doesn’t have much to say directly related to privacy either, hence the inflammatory remark about cattle. So before we jump on the "losing our privacy" bandwagon, let's look at a few issues this new technology could address.

One of the most obvious is the administration knowing immediately when a student has left the school grounds. Schools are responsible for the safety of our children. As a parent, I'd like the school to know immediately if my child has left the school grounds without permission. That’s not a privacy concern, that’s a safety concern. Minors don’t get to make those kinds of decisions for themselves.

Perhaps a student hasn’t shown up for class. Instead of relying on the teacher to notice the missing student, the system could immediately flag and locate that missing student, who could be sick, injured or simply ditching class. In any case, the student’s needs could be addressed immediately.

Another area that would strongly benefit is that of bullying. Take the scenario of a student who has been repeatedly harassed by a bully. Each of those students could be flagged in the system as two students that should not have prolonged contact with each other. Using an RFID location system, the computer could easily alert someone in the office that those two students are in close proximity with each other. This approach could prevent a whole host of harassment and bullying issues and go a long way toward keeping students safe.

Taking the “EZ Pass” approach, instead of buying lunch tickets or carrying cash around with them, kids could use an online account to pay for items at school. When students needed to buy lunch or other items, the account connected with the ID could be billed. No need to carry cash that could get lost or stolen.

There are certainly many more uses for this technology that have yet to be realized. And certainly, all new uses of technology need to be well thought through for possible risks. But let’s keep those discussions pertinent and free of inflammatory rhetoric — rhetoric that's designed to make people react emotionally because your point of view is weak on the facts.

Christine October 23, 2012 at 11:53 AM
I don't think using cattle is inflammatory at all. Cattle are LIVING MOVING BREATHING objects--unlike groceries. The use of RFID tags in cattle is implemented by the USDA to track movement and location of the animal, unlike groceries. The RFID tag in a cattle tracks movement for the safety of the animal and future human consumption (in this case bovine tuberculosis). According to the USDA, "The goal is to link the cattle to their place of origin so that if there is an outbreak, officials can quickly track the movement of infected animals, USDA said. " Grocery RFID tags are used as an alternative scanning system to eliminate bar codes and lines and receipts at the grocery store--Unlike cattle. Potential future implementation of RFID tags in groceries is to track expiration of items, etc. RFID tags in human children in Texas are used to track movement and location, just like cattle and unlike groceries. Do you see why the cattle analogy was used.
Jim G. October 23, 2012 at 02:48 PM
Joel, it's a charming thought that pointless rhetoric should be left at the door, but let's face it: an open comment field in a semi-anonymous, uncontrolled online environment brings out the worst in even the best. Giving people a soapbox and a mask means they will tend to lash out and say things they'd never say in a face to face situation; they can fling raw bile without any thought of personal consequence. But kudos for the thought. As for the real topic of your piece, it's like so, so, so many other good ideas wrapped around a time bomb. If you assume that every person and entity involved with student tracking is honest and well-intentioned, it's hard to counter the arguments in favor of it. Unfortunately, there's no way to ensure integrity. The ways this tool can be misused greatly outnumber the ways it can be well-used... and the likely negatives greatly outweigh the theoretical positives. Bad idea, as good as its core may be.


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