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Should Public Schools Use Biometrics and RFID to Track Kids?

For the nation's $20 billion security industry, schools are fertile ground for prison tech.

| Thu May 5, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

[Editors' Note: The excerpt below is adapted from the book Lockdown High, which is out this month from Verso.]

For millions of children, being scanned and monitored has become as much a part of their daily education as learning to read and write. But while metal detectors and video surveillance have been used for years in public schools, new military and corrections technologies are quietly moving into the classroom with little oversight. Biometric systems with prison applications, such as iris recognition and fingerprint scans, are already being deployed in some high schools to monitor Internet usage. Computer programs that check school visitor identities against sex offender lists are gaining popularity. And radio frequency identification (RFID), developed for military applications and now commonly used by industry, is being promoted for tracking students. The mantra of school safety is being used to justify technology for its own sake—and for the profits of savvy entrepreneurs.

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"There is a conflation of interests right now," says Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties specialist at the Northern California ACLU. "Companies want to make money and government wants to create a surveillance infrastructure. Homeland Security is sending down millions to communities that want to look like they are doing something about crime. After Columbine, people don't even question it in schools. They say one of three things to justify the surveillance: terrorism, crime, or child safety. They employ things that don't really address problems in schools. Why not more counselors?"

In 1998, Congress reacted to a spate of high-profile shootings over the previous year by enacting the Safe Schools Initiative (PDF), a seemingly muscular program meant to show how seriously lawmakers took school violence. Among other things, the initiative directed the National Institute of Justice to develop new and appropriate weapons detection and surveillance technologies for schools. NIJ created a School Safety Program and made its National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Centers—Southeast the home for research into state-of-the-art policing and prison technologies that could apply to public schools. At the same time, NIJ funded Sandia National Laboratories, a Department of Energy facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to apply its expertise in security technologies to schools. Sandia is run by the defense and aeronautics behemoth Lockheed Martin under contract to the Department of Energy and primarily supports the US nuclear weapons program. Facilitating Sandia's work on public schools was Senator Jeff Bingham of New Mexico, who earmarked funds to one of his home state's big employers.

Click here to buy the book.Click here to buy the book.Sandia's Security Technologies and Research Division had been working on school security since about 1991, according to Mary W. Green, who was among those employees involved. The division had several hundred staffers researching security for high-risk facilities, such as nuclear power plants. Green recalls that people in her unit were contacted by local school officials who asked about security technology for their buildings. "All of us were into schools. We had kids. We were these nerdy types who wore polyester. My husband's pants were about four inches too short," she says with a laugh. "We were invited to school meetings and went on our own time and used discretionary funds." Green and her bosses wanted to share what they knew, a technology transfer to schools at a time when school security had become a "hot issue," she says. Sandia undertook a pilot project at Belen High School, south of Alberquerque, funded by the Department of Energy. Later, the NIJ money funded Sandia to research and test security hardware, such as metal detectors and surveillance cameras, to determine what works and what doesn't in a school. "One of the big impetuses for us to get into this is that the security industry isn't regulated. Anybody can open up shop and call themselves security experts," Green notes. "Schools notoriously have to go with the lowest bidder, and they get the junk." She recalls visiting a Washington, D.C., school that had wired part of the building for new alarms. "They didn't bother running the wiring through the walls," she says. "They just ran it along a hallway. It broke my heart. A school can get a couple thousand and just waste it."

In 1999, NIJ published "The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools," (PDF) a manual on which Green had spent a year working for schools and law enforcement. Its 129 colorfully illustrated pages detail the pros and cons of video surveillance, metal detectors, and entry control technologies. Chapter One explains the rationales for security hardware when "simply providing more adults" in a school isn't enough, including "humans don't do mundane tasks well" and "manpower costs are always increasing." Back then, security technologies had yet to become as widely accepted as they are today, a fact Green attributed to limited school budgets and experience with technology, as well as privacy and civil rights issues. So she offered counterarguments to those who opposed cameras or metal detection in schools. To the argument "This is a knee-jerk reaction," the manual recommended parrying, "This solution will take care of the immediate threat while longer term social programs are put in place." "Our school will look like a prison" should be rebutted with "Our school will look like it is well controlled." Green's manual also provides legal advice on the placement and use of video surveillance: avoid areas like gym lockers or bathrooms where there is a "reasonable expectation of privacy."

 

To the argument "This is a knee-jerk reaction," the NIJ manual recommended parrying, "This solution will take care of the immediate threat while longer term social programs are put in place."

Metal detection gets a thorough examination that notes its weaknesses: "a metal detector alone cannot distinguish between a gun and a large metal belt buckle," "a metal detector is only as good as the operator overseeing its use," and the clear-eyed observation "It is very difficult to do truly random checks with any hope of locating weapons." Green's guide, though nearly a decade old, is still a widely cited resource for school security, and she believes it has had an impact. "Back when I first got involved, people would say, 'Cameras? Kids will think we don't trust them. Now cameras are really common, and for that we owe a lot to McDonald's and Kinko's. Because of them it's less unheard-of in schools." Sadly for Green, the congressional fervor that pumped funding into Sandia's research cooled when school safety was no longer the "hot" issue, as Green put it. Now Sandia doesn't work on school security. "I thought it would be my life because schools need this. I'm doing mints now," Green says wistfully, referring to US currency production facilities, "but it doesn't have the heart-wrenching thing."

 

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