- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

A saying popular in the Sixties was “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” A version better suited to the recent age of galloping networking and surveillance might be, “Just because they’re not out to get you doesn’t mean they won’t.”

Inattentively, for reasons of convenience and efficiency, we are creating a fundamentally different world.

Most recently, we have the electronic tracking of schoolchildren by the use of radio-frequency identification devices (RFIDs). These are devices about the size of a pinhead and cost about five to 10 cents each to make. They consist of a minute capacitor and inductor, creating a resonant circuit.

They are a cheap way of tracking things. Today you can have one painlessly implanted in your dog, so it can always be identified. You can voluntarily have one put in your arm so that if you collapse from diabetes, the paramedics can use the ID number to get your medical records. The Pentagon wants to put them in its inventory of supplies and parts to ease tracking and accounting. All good ideas, no?

Now, reports Wired.com, the Enterprise Charter School, a K-8 school in Buffalo, N.Y., is using RFIDs to keep track of when students get to school. The principal, Gary Stillman, wants eventually to track attendance at class and when students get on and off buses. The children wear tags around their necks containing the RFIDs, which are read by a reader.

The company doing the work is Intuitech.

Schools have always checked attendance. Why not do it electronically? Identification has long been required for everything from using a library to cashing a check. Why not do it a bit more conveniently?

Mr. Stillman is not a totalitarian ogre. He’s just trying to make administration easier and life more secure for the students.

This makes sense enough. When a child doesn’t show up after school and his parents worry, it would certainly be useful to know when he left school, whether he got on the bus, and if so where he got off.

As this sort of well-intended and convenient surveillance increases, children (and all of us) will learn that they are never unwatched. On the bus, off the bus, through the doors, what class and when and how long it took to get there, what books checked out, ate lunch or didn’t, on and on.

A crucial question: What difference, and how much of a difference, will it make in our lives that almost nothing we do will go unnoted and unrecorded by some computer somewhere? This is where we are headed. Maybe it won’t really matter. Or maybe it will be stifling if not worse. We’ll know in a decade.

The bits and pieces of this watchfulness pop up everywhere in the computer press. I saw a while back that a school wanted to put daily attendance and homework information on the Web so that parents, using a password, could check it. The Japanese are putting RFIDs in bills of large denomination to combat money laundering. The British have video cameras that read every passing license plate and check the number against various kinds of lists.

And it is all technically easy. It is so easy and so convenient that controlling it will usually be an afterthought — that is, after the particular system has been installed and in use for long enough that everyone has gotten used to it. Things installed seldom uninstall themselves.

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