Location: Texas

Sunday, November 28, 2004

High-tech ID cards raise privacy issue

His crew cut shiny with hair gel, 10-year-old Cody M. King hopped aboard his school bus at Bammel Elementary School and waved a high-tech identification card across a card reader.

Information about the time, location and bus he boarded was instantly recorded in a database that police and other officials can access.

When he got off the bus at his north Harris County home, he scanned the card again and the computer recorded the details. He said he's glad the police know where he is.


The card-reader system is being touted as the latest safety tool for students at Bammel Elementary in the Spring Independent School District. By tracking students, officials say they will be able to get a quicker start on finding children reported missing.

"We can't keep them (completely) safe," said Spring ISD Police Chief Alan Bragg. "But if they get off at the wrong stop or don't go home after getting off the bus, we know where to start looking."

Some worry, however, that the new technology poses privacy concerns and offers a false sense of security.

"Big Brother is watching you for your own good," said Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, a consumer privacy group. "That's the camel's nose in the tent."


Spring ISD officials think they are the first to use the system to monitor students on buses in the Houston area and beyond. A charter school in Buffalo, N.Y., uses the technology to take student attendance, and two schools in Japan use the system to log when students arrive at and leave campus, according to news reports.

Beth Elliott, mother of Bammel fourth-grader Taylor Doyle, said she didn't let her daughter ride the bus until the district installed the tracking system because of concerns that Taylor would be lost or abducted.

Instead, she would dash from work each day to pick Taylor up from school or arrange for someone else to do so, and take her to a baby-sitter.

"Now, she rides the bus every day," Elliott said. "Since they put the system in, that's when my comfort level went up."

And that's part of the problem, said Robert Smith, a privacy security consultant near Boston. He said students might be safer if school buses were equipped with seat belts instead of the ID card system.

Note the complete willingness to give up essential freedom for a perceived level of safety which bears little relationship to reality.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
-- Ben Franklin


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