Gov’t RFID tracking: Creepy or mark of the beast?

When I first heard rumblings about school districts in Texas using locator chips to track students, I assumed it wasn’t true.

So my jaw dropped while reading this Associated Press story. It begins:

To 15-year-old Andrea Hernandez, the tracking microchip embedded in her student ID card is a “mark of the beast,” sacrilege to her Christian faith – not to mention how it pinpoints her location, even in the school bathroom.

But to her budget-reeling San Antonio school district, those chips carry a potential $1.7 million in classroom funds.

Starting this fall, the fourth-largest school district in Texas is experimenting with “locator” chips in student ID badges on two of its campuses, allowing administrators to track the whereabouts of 4,200 students with GPS-like precision. Hernandez’s refusal to participate isn’t a twist on teenage rebellion, but has launched a debate over privacy and religion that has forged a rare like-mindedness between typically opposing groups.

When Hernandez and her parents balked at the so-called SmartID, the school agreed to remove the chip but still required her to wear the badge. The family refused on religious grounds, stating in a lawsuit that even wearing the badge was tantamount to “submission of a false god” because the card still indicated her participation.

Now I find government agencies electronically stalking children to be creeptastic just for basic civil liberties reasons, but I’m intrigued by this religion argument. Most of the story focuses on either the involvement of civil liberties groups against the practice or the school district’s justification for the practice, which it assures everyone is mostly financial, with a bit of a nod to efficiency and security. (Funds are paid to schools based on attendance so kids who are ditching one class but still on campus can be counted for the daily tally.)

What I was really hoping for, though, was an explanation of the family’s religious views on the mark of the beast and how this RFID card relates to those views. On that front, I was a bit disappointed:

John Whitehead, [founder of Virginia-based civil rights group, The Rutherford Institute] believes the religious component of the lawsuit makes it stronger than if it only objected on grounds of privacy. The lawsuit cites scriptures in the book of Revelation, stating that “acceptance of a certain code … from a secular ruling authority” is a form of idolatry.

Wearing the badge, the family argues, takes it a step further.

“It starts with that religious concern,” Whitehead said. “There is a large mark of Evangelicals that believe in the `mark of the beast.’ “

At first I tried to find the scripture verse quoted above. Then I realized that it’s just a quote from the lawsuit and that the lawsuit cites scripture. I’m sure that if you’re already familiar with the line of thinking espoused here, you understand perfectly what this all means. But it’s a bit oblique for those of us who aren’t as familiar. I don’t quite get the religious objection, based on this story’s characterization of it at least. I found this Courthouse News Service write-up of the lawsuit a bit more helpful just because it quotes a bit more from the lawsuit:

A magnet high school is booting out a Christian student because she has religious objections to wearing the school’s chip-embedded ID badge, the student claims in court.

Andrea Hernandez, a student at John Jay High School and John Jay Science and Engineering Academy, sued the Northside Independent School District, Jay High School Principal Robert Harris and Jay Academy Principal Jay Sumpter, in Bexar County Court…

Hernandez and her father object to the badges, based on Scripture in the book of Revelation.

“According to these scriptures, an individual’s acceptance of a certain code, identified with his or her person, as a pass conferring certain privileges from a secular ruling authority, is a form of idolatry or submission to a false god,” the complaint states. “Plaintiff was offered an ‘accommodation’ whereby the radio chip would be removed from the plaintiff’s badge. Under this ‘accommodation,’ however, plaintiff would still be required to wear the badge around her neck as an outward symbol of her ‘participation’ in the project.”

Hernandez says defendant Harris has banned her from distributing flyers and petitions to other students at the school, arguing against the project.

I’m sure there’s much more that could be written about this passage from Revelation and how it relates to some people’s objections to RFID tracking devices issued by government agencies. It sounds like there was not much explanation in the court filings.

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  • Jerry

    I agree Mollie – the story is incomplete. I get their objection to the badge but where do they draw the line? Wearing badges in general including those required to work at many businesses? Passports with RFID? Social security numbers? I could see the answers being varied by different people, but knowing where the line was drawn in this case beyond the school issue and why would have been useful to know.

    • Marie

      This is my immediate response as well. In addition to the example already mentioned. What about a Drivers license number? You are required to have your license on your person to drive a car. I am not invalidating this family’s religious belief but I think this is an obvious point that the journalist should have addressed if only to give some clarification the the student’s position.

      • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

        I thought of driver’s licenses and all manner of ID cards of various kinds. One difference is that you don’t have to have a driver’s license if you don’t drive a car, and there is no government mandate that you do drive a car as there is for going to school. The tracking chip I think is creepy and I don’t like the new generation of smart phones that know where I am and tell me where my friends are and track what stores I walk into, how long I stay, and basically my every move. It’s very disturbing from a biblical/end-times point of view. But still, the story is missing why they object to the ID badge/card and whether or not they have credit cards, ATM cards, SS cards, health insurance cards, supermarket club discount cards, and on and on and on in their wallets or if they object to them too on religious grounds.

        • sari

          You don’t have to have a driver’s if you don’t drive, but you *do* need a government issued picture id in order to board a commercial airplane. No passport/driver’s/state id, no fly, period. Most colleges and universities require picture ids, and some use also use them as dorm entry cards.

  • SouthCoast

    If the kid is ditching class but still on campus, why the heck should the school still get their “butt in the seat” money for that kid in the first place? The kid’s learning nothing, and is being taught by no one. Give the teachers a smart phone app to take attendance. Attendance is immediately sent to the attendance office, and is run against a database showing who’s supposed to be where when. If the kid doesn’t show, use the PA system or autodial the kid’s cell phone and tell them to get their backsides to class. If the kid doesn’t show, have security do a sweep for the missing bodies. If they’re not found, call the parent(s) and notify them. After a third ditch, bill the parents for the search.

    • Martha

      I agree with this; it does nothing to address the problem of truancy. A kid wants to go on the hop? Give your chipped badge to a mate while you stay at home/head into town, and you will be counted as attending. I don’t know if this system will do away with teachers taking the rolls, but if it does, then it’s even worse: you don’t even have Mr. Smith or Ms. Jones noticing that little Johnny isn’t in school – as long as the computer shows that his badge is there, then he’s there – even if he’s twenty miles away.

      I sympathise that schools are desperate for funding, but this is not about keeping kids in school, it’s a piece of rules gaming and accounting trickery.

  • Julia

    “submission of a false god”????? This needs an explanation.

  • FW Ken

    I’m pretty conversant with the Mark of the Beast/End of Days scenario, but there is a lot that needs explanation. The girl goes to the public school, which requires a badge to identify students. Would they object to a school uniform? Am I apostate because I wear a badge at the office? The school was willing to give up on the chip, which shows some reasonable flexibility. I read both stories and really don’t understand the religion angle.

    More information about the family’s religious affiliation might have helped. Their position is at the fringe – maybe past the fringe – of mainstream evangelicalism and, as far as I know, fundamentalism. Who are these people?

  • Glenn

    Hi Mollie,

    The Mark of the Beast is something that gets a lot of discussion in premillennial circles. In the tribulation it will be an outward sign of a person’s allegiance to the Anti-Christ and will permit people to participate in commerce.

    If you want to understand some of the issues involved I recommend reading the five page write-up “The Mark of the Beast” by Dr. Thomas Ice. Of course, as with all things Christian, there will be a wide spectrum of belief on the topic.

    Glenn

  • northcoast

    I’ve always assumed the mark of the beast would have to be a tattoo or some similar permanent marking on the individual’s skin. Relating that to an ID card seems to be kind of a stretch; although the idea of a tracking card is creepy.

    Wouldn’t a camera in the classroom provide a better means of taking attendance?

  • GarlicClove

    My only thought on a connection between a tracking chip and the mark of the beast is that a similar chip was paired with a tattoo and embedded in the skin in the Left Behind series, a fictional account of the end times By Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. But I agree, more info on the family’s affiliations would really have clarified this article.


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