Don't track my children

"We need to issue your children RFID cards so that we can track where they are when at the school.  This is done for their safety and the information will only be used by school officials in order to make sure they're where they belong."

Being the parent of two children and a privacy advocate, there are few words that a school administrator could ever utter that would be more chilling.  The tracking of our children is becoming more common and widely accepted, even though most parents have never actually though through the implications of tracking and the secondary costs that are involved.

Think about how your children are being tracked.  In some cases, they have an RFID card that's used to log entrance and exit from buses and school grounds.  Basically, they swipe their card past a reader as they walk into or out of the school and the ID number of their badge is entered into a database.  More advanced technologies allow schools to actively follow cards, making it possible to track a child to within a few feet of where they actually are at any given moment of the day.

Why does a school actually need to know where a student is at every moment of the day?  Schools have worked well for centuries without students being tracked moment by moment.  This freedom from parental observation is actually part of the learning experience and something children need to grow up.  Yes, it's easier for the teachers and administrators to control the students, but in the majority of cases does it actually gain the students, the people who this is actually for, anything?  The reasoning for location tracking is that it improves the security of the school, yet there's been no statistical evidence to show that schools that enable this type of tracking are significantly safer than schools that don't.

A second, more invasive form of tracking is of the student's activities while on computers or other electronic devices, both while on school grounds and off.  What sites a student can surf to at school, and what programs he or she can use, are both basic tracking efforts that every school can - and should - be making.  But the capability to monitor all activity, down to the key stroke and mouse movement, go far beyond this.  In some cases, being able to programatically track the student's actions can help discern where a student is having problems.  But it also opens up the students to a level of intrusiveness that's equivalent to always having a teacher look over your shoulder.  

Several years ago the Lower Marion School District got into trouble when it was revealed they'd installed monitoring software on school provided laptops and were taking pictures of students without their knowledge.  The school had installed the software in order to prevent theft of laptops, but it also included capabilities to capture photos using the built-in cameras on the computers.  This ended up being used without the students' knowledge, capturing pictures every fifteen minutes, and sending them to the schools servers.  This came to light when a student was accused of taking drugs because a picture of him eating candy was captured by the software and later reviewed by an administrator.

One aspect of student tracking that's seldom discussed is who will have access to the data and when.  Will access be limited to a few senior administrators?  Will teachers have free access to their own students data, or will any teacher be allowed to track any student for any reason?  And of course the IT department for the school will probably have full access to the data, simply because they're the administrators.  There's also the matter of maintaining the access controls; anyone who's managed a corporate database can tell you how access to the data tends to slowly loosen until you find nearly everyone has access to the data.

The question of where else tracking data about students is another issue seldom discussed.  It's often cheaper and easier for a school district to pay the organization providing the hardware and software to maintain the data rather than doing it themselves.  So of course this organization has access to the student tracking data as well.  Is the organization allowed to mine the data for their own uses?  Are they allowed to sell it to third parties interested in mining it for their own use?  Does the school administration even know what might be in the contract they signed allowing or limiting the usage of the data?  Another possibility is that the school gets a cheaper or even free system if they allow the mining of the data, a detail that might get left out when describing it to the parents.

Long term, the consequences of tracking students becomes even more concerning.  A fifth grade teacher might end up with access to where a student went and did for every moment from his first day of preschool.  Without a clearly thought out and defined data retention plan, it's conceivable that the record of movement and activity could follow a student through out his or her entire school life, including college and possibly into the workplace.  We're learning that the consequences of people's actions on social media sites can affect them years later.  Imagine being held responsible as an adult for a decision you made when you were fifteen.  

But the thing that I find most frightening about monitoring and tracking in the classroom is what it teaches our kids.  They become conditioned to having a device that tracks their every move.  It trains them to accept the trade off between personal freedom, privacy and the illusion of security.  There's no conclusive evidence that tracking students provides a better education or more security for them.  What is known is that the schools make more money when students can be proven to be in their seats.  Parents need to understand the real motivations and the real trade-offs they're making for their children when agreeing to any sort of school monitoring.

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