The American Civil Liberties Union is questioning Contra Costa officials over their implementation of a microchip tracking program in their preschool centers.
Nicole Ozer, the ACLU's technology and civil liberties director, told California Watch that she asked the county to provide more information about their program. She was especially interested in the technical specfications of the microchips and how the program came into being.
Ozer, who works out of the organization's San Francisco office, was heavily involved in advocating for the California law against forced microchip implantation, and she successfully challenged Brittan Elementary School's microchip identification program in 2005. As she wrote in a blog post last week:
While school officials and parents may have been sold on these tags as a “cost-saving measure,” we are concerned that the real price of insecure RFID technology is the privacy and safety of small children. RFID has been billed as a “proven technology,” but what’s actually been proven time and again [PDF] since the ACLU first looked at this issue in 2005 is just how insecure RFID chips can be …
At issue is Contra Costa's computerized child-tracking initiative called Child Location, Observation and Utilization Data System, or CLOUDS for short. In early July 2009, county officials started talking with AT&T and Dynamic Computer Corp. about using a portion of a $1.1 million stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to build such a system.
In January, One Solutions Technology of Fremont emerged as the county's choice. Upon the recommendation of Joe Valentine, Contra Costa's director of employment and human services, the county Board of Supervisors awarded up to $160,000 of the county's federal stimulus to One Solutions for the high-tech program, according to meeting minutes reviewed by California Watch.
By July, the first CLOUDS system had been installed at the George Miller III Center in Richmond, the largest of 19 Contra Costa child care centers providing free or reduced services under the federal Head Start program.
CLOUDS works like this: At the George Miller III Center, approximately 200 students, ages 3 to 5, get assigned a V-shaped basketball-style jersey with a small electronic locator chip sewn into the chest area. Upon dropping the children off to begin the day, parents must digitally sign their child in.
The tracking device in the jersey starts to emit radio frequencies that get picked up by white boxes hanging from the ceilings. Those boxes relay that signal to a computer in each room and to a central administrative office on site. Once the computer receives the signal, each child can be seen as a "moving dot" on the screen. If a child strays out of their assigned area, an alert is sent to the teacher.
Karen Mitchoff, spokeswoman for Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services Department, said the program does not intend to harm or put any child at risk. Instead, Mitchoff says, it is meant to enable teachers to focus more on classroom instruction by freeing them from filing attendance reports.
She insisted the computer monitoring wouldn't replace the day-to-day supervision by teachers. She also pointed out that federal officials never expressed any concern with the county's application, which included plans to track the preschoolers.
Those explanations don't satisfy Ozer. She questioned why the county chose to implement radio-frequency tracking in a program exclusively serving low-income and disadvantaged families.
Ozer said she was unfamilar with any privacy or safety guidance issued by Head Start for microchip tracking devices and wonders whether officials fully explained all the potential downsides to the parents before committing to the program.
If the price for parents going to Head Start is that your kids are tracked and potentially made unsafe, that's not acceptable. These chips are really high powered. They can be read up to 100 meters away which means someone could pick up the signal from across the street from the center. So rather than make the kids safer they may be making them more vulnerable.
This doesn't seem like an appropriate use of stimulus. It may be valid to look at alternative ways to attendance taking but there are a lot of steps in between manual attendance notation and high powered microchip tracking.
Tracking microchips have become popular in recent years as the technology of choice for pet owners, prison guards and cattle wranglers. But the rapid social acceptance of such technology troubles some civil rights and privacy advocates.
In 2007, California became one of the first states to ban forced implantation of microchips under a person's skin. Yet a year later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed Senate Bill 29 that would have blocked the use of microchips and other radio-frequency identification technology in schools.