A nascent security trend in the U.S. is tracking schoolchildren when they get on and off school buses.
Hoping to prevent the loss of a child through kidnapping or more innocent circumstances, a few schools have begun monitoring student arrivals and departures using technology similar to that used to track livestock and pallets of retail shipments.
A school district in Spring, Texas, is using computerized ID badges to record this information, and wirelessly sending it to police headquarters. Another school district, in Phoenix, is doing the same thing with fingerprint readers. The system is supposed to help prevent the loss of a child, whether through kidnapping or accident.
What’s going on here? Have these people lost their minds? Tracking kids as they get on and off school buses is a ridiculous idea. It’s expensive, invasive, and doesn’t increase security very much.
Security is always a trade-off. In Beyond Fear, I delineated a five-step process to evaluate security countermeasures. The idea is to be able to determine, rationally, whether a countermeasure is worth it. In the book, I applied the five-step process to everything from home burglar alarms to military action against terrorism. Let’s apply it in this case.
Step 1: What assets are you trying to protect? Children.
Step 2: What are the risks to these assets? Loss of the child, either due to kidnapping or accident. Child kidnapping is a serious problem in the U.S.; the odds of a child being abducted by a family member are one in 340 and by a non-family member are 1 in 1200 (per year). (These statistics are for 1999, and are from NISMART-2, U.S. Department of Justice. My guess is that the current rates in Spring, Texas, are much lower.) Very few of these kidnappings involve school buses, so it’s unclear how serious the specific risks being addressed here are.
Step 3: How well does the security solution mitigate those risks? Not very well.
Let’s imagine how this system might provide security in the event of a kidnapping. If a kidnapper — assume it’s someone the child knows — goes onto the school bus and takes the child off at the wrong stop, the system would record that. Otherwise — if the kidnapping took place either before the child got on the bus or after the child got off — the system wouldn’t record anything suspicious. Yes, it would tell investigators if the kidnapping happened before morning attendance and either before or after the school bus ride, but is that one piece of information worth this entire tracking system? I doubt it.
You could imagine a movie-plot scenario where this kind of tracking system could help the hero recover the kidnapped child, but it hardly seems useful in the general case.
Step 4: What other risks does the security solution cause? The additional risk is the data collected through constant surveillance. Where is this information collected? Who has access to it? How long is it stored? These are important security questions that get no mention.
Step 5: What costs and trade-offs does the security solution impose? There are two. The first is obvious: money. I don’t have it figured, but it’s expensive to outfit every child with an ID card and every school bus with this system. The second cost is more intangible: a loss of privacy. We are raising children who think it normal that their daily movements are watched and recorded by the police. That feeling of privacy is not something we should give up lightly.
So, finally: is this system worth it? No. The security gained is not worth the money and privacy spent. If the goal is to make children safer, the money would be better spent elsewhere: guards at the schools, education programs for the children, etc.
If this system makes so little sense, why have at least two cities in the U.S. implemented it? The obvious answer is that the school districts didn’t think the problem through. Either they were seduced by the technology, or by the companies that built the system. But there’s another, more interesting, possibility.
In Beyond Fear, I talk about the notion of agenda. The five-step process is a subjective one, and should be evaluated from the point of view of the person making the trade-off decision. If you imagine that the school officials are making the trade-off, then the system suddenly makes sense.
If a kidnapping occurs on school property, the subsequent investigation could easily hurt school officials. They could even lose their jobs. If you view this security countermeasure as one protecting them just as much as it protects children, it suddenly makes more sense. The trade-off might not be worth it in general, but it’s worth it to them.
Kidnapping is a real problem, and countermeasures that help reduce the risk are a good thing. But remember that security is always a trade off, and a good security system is one where the security benefits are worth the money, convenience, and liberties that are being given up. Quite simply, this system isn’t worth it.