Changes made to controversial preschool attendance tracking system
on October 22, 2010
More than three months after the start of a controversial program to track Richmond preschoolers with radio frequency identification chips, officials overseeing the program have made some changes.
Since July 1, 200 preschoolers at the George Miller III Head Start Program—and their teachers—have been wearing lightweight vests, much like soccer jerseys, with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips inside that track and document their every move. The system was put in place by directors of the Head Start program, to increase security and streamline the required process of taking hourly attendance. The county hopes to deploy the system in all 19 Head Start programs countywide.
But the program—which has made national headlines over the past few months—has drawn fire from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which jointly wrote an open letter to the county last month raising questions about privacy and security.
According to Karen Mitchoff, spokeswoman for the Contra Costa County Employment & Human Services Department, the umbrella organization for Head Start, the recent changes to the program were not driven by this criticism. “We always had the intention of looking at this [pilot program] after three months,” Mitchoff said.
Originally, the system involved the use of battery-operated chips, tracking the students over a range of 100 feet continuously throughout their school day. The changes, put in place on Oct. 4, include a shift to using magnetic strips, as on key cards, instead of batteries. This reduces the “read range” to three feet and minimizes the operational work required to keep the system going.
“This new system is [no longer] tracking the children moving all about during the day,” said Pat Stroh, director of the Community Services Bureau of Head Start Child Development. “It’s simply tracking when they go in and out of the door, which is the security we initially wanted. With the battery system, it had to be activated, deactivated and recharged by the teacher which was quite cumbersome.”
Real time information about the location of the children is still electronically recorded four times a day. The system also sends a message to kitchen staff, who make meals depending on the number of children in attendance.
But critics aren’t satisfied. “We still have more questions than we have answers and have a lot of concerns about the privacy and safety of these school children,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of Northern California. She noted inconsistencies in the system’s read range adding, “Just because the intended read range is three feet, it may be that it can still be read at a far greater distance than that. It’s still not clear that they’ve understood this technology.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has similar worries. “We want to make sure the data that’s been collected on the children is being safeguarded,” said Rebecca Jesche, EFF media relations director. “Is there a data trail that is being saved by the school and is that information being backed up by the vendor? If so, how do people get access to it?”
Representatives of the two organizations will meet with the directors of the county’s Employment and Human Services department as well as the Head Start Child Development Bureau to discuss their concerns about the RFID system.
So far, though, parents and teachers have raised few concerns.
“I feel safer now,” said Yara Granadion, parent of a George Miller III preschooler. “They are using this technology for something good and I really like that.”
“I feel secure because they have this new technology,” said parent Joanna Garcia. “I love it, I’m really happy with the system.”
Directors of the Head Start program hosted a parents meeting two weeks before the implementation of the system. Parents who attended the meeting said that there were no concerns raised about security or privacy.
“They informed us about how it was going to work and everybody had all kinds of questions about how the chip would affect the health of our kids,” said Yara Granadino, who added that all questions were answered. “The biggest concern was that the chip would have some kind of virus or be linked to cancer.”
Granadino also explained that some concerns were raised about whether or not this heightened technology would serve as a substitute for the teachers. They were told that the 6:1 student to teacher ratio requirement would still be met and that teachers would also be chipped to enforce that.
“Before this system, we had to worry about counting the kids all day long hour after hour,” said Simone Beauford, teacher at George Miller Elementary, adding that teachers actually liked the idea of being chipped. “I’m [no longer] interrupted when I’m with the children. I can just continue my lesson and not feel like I have to interrupt to do an hourly head count .”
Parents were presented with the right to opt out of the RFID tracking program, but only one parent has decided to do so.
“The parent who opted out was very sensitive because her child had had two open heart surgeries and was concerned about the jersey,” said Stroh. “However, we met with her and she is now in support of the system.”
The meeting between the ACLU-NC, the EFF and directors of the Contra Costa County Employment & Human Services Department will be held today.
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