Tracking them instead of talking to them

At high schools around the Baltimore area, Big Brother is keeping tabs on where you are

January 14, 2013|Susan Reimer

A Texas judge has ruled that a student's religious freedom is not violated by her high school's requirement that all students wear ID cards with embedded chips.

Her claim — that the ID card bore "the mark of the beast" referenced in the Book of Revelations in the Bible — was bizarre. But it appears to be a rare bit of pushback by students or parents against an Orwellian tracking system that gives me goose bumps.

In Texas, funding for schools is tied to daily attendance, and badges with chips or bar codes give a more accurate head count (especially in high schools where students have more freedom of movement) and more revenue.

In Maryland, schools are adopting the "Swipe" system, as it is called, as a way to accurately collect attendance information and reduce class tardiness and class-cutting.

"We had a lateness problem, and it has reduced it significantly," said Brad Spence, assistant principal at Edgewood High School in Harford County. "Students are more accountable because they know they are being tracked."

Such systems are in increasing use, though still far from universal. A Perry Hall-based company called Swipe K12 created the system used in a number of local schools, including Perry Hall High School. Philip Lee, the company's vice president for sales and marketing, says the seven-year-old company has sold to schools in some 40 districts in 11 states, from Nevada to New York (although not to the Texas school involved in the lawsuit).

Students swipe in as soon as they get off the bus, and they have to swipe into the main office, the nurse's office and the guidance office so teachers know, if they are missing from class, that they have a legitimate reason.

In some schools, the badges are used to check out books from the library or to buy food in the cafeteria. The system can also send an email or a text to parents who want the service, letting them know their child is not in school or has been called to the office for some reason.

"Only about 12 percent of our parents participate," said Mr. Spence. "But those who do will call us before we get a chance to call them."

Tardiness results in automatic detention, and that's recorded on the badges, too. "Teachers like it because it holds students accountable, but there is no bias," he said.

He hasn't heard any parental or student grumbling since the program was put in place three years ago. Though at first students tried to game the system — it is too tempting not to try — "Now it is an expectation and an ingrained practice in our building."

But when does an easy way to take roll become surveillance?

We used to try to corral our kids. Now we track them. And there are plenty of tools available to adults to do that. We can find out where they have been on the Internet, who they've met there and what they do there. We can track their driving speed or whether they are texting while driving. And parents can get alerts if there are inappropriate language or pictures in their children's digital activities.

We adults probably don't know how many "footprints" we leave each day with our phones, our computers, our credit cards, our drivers' licenses, passports, hotel keys and the badges we use to clock in an out of work.

It is annoying when the advertisements that show up on our Google searches show very clearly that our shopping habits are being tracked. But how would we feel if it was Big Brother? (How do we know it isn't Big Brother?)

Dave Schulz, an information privacy professional in San Antonio, where the suit was filed, said that ID badges required by our employers are part of an agreement that we enter into willingly. But as long as education is compulsory in this country, students have no such option.

And while I understand grown-ups can never anticipate all the kinds of trouble teenagers will invent for themselves, electronic surveillance isn't a family value I embrace. How about conversations about expectations, instead? Is there an app for that?

This is part of what makes teenagers such an aggrieved class, I think. The fact that adults don't trust them very much — and don't respect them very much either.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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