"Sandra Martinez, 10, uses her ID card to indicate that she is getting off her school bus in Spring, Tex." Does anyone else get the heeby-jeebies when they read these two articles from this week’s N.Y. Times entitled Tiny Antennas to Keep Tabs on U.S. Drugs (15 Nov.) and In Texas, 28,000 Students Test an Electronic Eye (17 Nov.)? (If you aren't a member of the N.Y .Times, click on the "Continue reading" link below for the full text of the articles.) Must students be required to wear tracking devices in order for them to be safe? My instincts tell me: buy stocks in the companies who manufacture these devices. This trend of tracking pets, products, cattle, children, and adults is growing.
November 17, 2004
In Texas, 28,000 Students Test an Electronic Eye
By MATT RICHTEL
SPRING, Tex.- In front of her gated apartment complex, Courtney Payne, a 9-year-old fourth grader with dark hair pulled tightly into a ponytail, exits a yellow school bus. Moments later, her movement is observed by Alan Bragg, the local police chief, standing in a windowless control room more than a mile away.
Chief Bragg is not using video surveillance. Rather, he watches an icon on a computer screen. The icon marks the spot on a map where Courtney got off the bus, and, on a larger level, it represents the latest in the convergence of technology and student security.
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.
Here in a growing middle- and working-class suburb just north of Houston, the effort is undergoing its most ambitious test. The Spring IndependentSchool District is equipping 28,000 students with ID badges containing computer chips that are read when the students get on and off school buses. The information is fed automatically by wireless phone to the police and school administrators.
In a variation on the concept, a Phoenixschool district in November is starting a project using fingerprint technology to track when and where students get on and off buses. Last year, a charter school in Buffalo
At the Spring district, where no student has ever been kidnapped, the system is expected to be used for more pedestrian purposes, Chief Bragg said: to reassure frantic parents, for example, calling because their child, rather than coming home as expected, went to a friend's house, an extracurricular activity or a Girl Scout meeting.
When the district unanimously approved the $180,000 system, neither teachers nor parents objected, said the president of the board. Rather, parents appear to be applauding. "I'm sure we're being overprotective, but you hear about all this violence," said Elisa Temple-Harvey, 34, the parent of a fourth grader. "I'm not saying this will curtail it, or stop it, but at least I know she made it to campus."
The project also is in keeping with the high-tech leanings of the district, which built its own high-speed data network and is outfitting the schools with wireless Internet access. A handful of companies have adapted the technology for use in schools.
But there are critics, including some older students and privacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, who argue that the system is security paranoia.
The decades-old technology, called radio frequency identification, or RFID, is growing less expensive and developing vast new capabilities. It is based on a computer chip that has a unique number programmed into it and contains a tiny antenna that sends information to a reader.
The same technology is being used by companies like Wal-Mart to track pallets of retail items. Pet owners can have chips embedded in cats and dogs to identify them if they are lost.
In October, the Food and Drug Administration approved use of an RFID chip that could be implanted under a patient's skin and would carry a number that linked to the patient's medical records.
At the Spring district, the first recipients of the computerized ID badges have been the 626 students of BammelElementary school
Felipe, wearing a gray, hooded sweatshirt with a Spiderman logo and blue high-top tennis shoes also with a Spiderman logo, wore his yellow ID badge on a string around his neck. When he climbed on to the bus, he pressed the badge against a flat gray "reader"just inside the bus door. The reader ID beeped.
Shortly after, he was followed onto the bus by Christopher Nunez, a 9-year-old fourth grader. Christopher said it was important that students wore badges so they did not get lost. Asked what might cause someone to get lost, he said, "If they're in second grade they might not know which street is their home."
But on the morning Felipe and Christopher shared a seat on bus No. 38, the district experienced one of the early technology hiccups. When the bus arrived at school, the system had not worked. On the Web site that includes the log of student movements, there was no record that any of the students on the bus had arrived.
It was just one of many headaches; the system had also made double entries for some students, and got arrival times and addresses wrong for others. "It's early glitches," said Brian Weisinger, the head of transportation for the Spring district, adding that he expected to work out the problems.
But for the Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, where administrators gave ID cards with the RFID technology to around 460 students last year, the computer problems lasted for many months.
The system is set up so that when students walk in the door each morning, they pass by one of two kiosks - which together cost $40,000 - designed to pick up their individual radio frequency numbers as a way of taking attendance. Initially, though, the kiosks failed to register some students, or registered ones who were not there.
Mark Walter, head of technology for the Buffaloschool, said the system was working well now. But Mr. Walter cautions that the more ambitious technological efforts in Spring, particularly given the reliance on cellphones to call in the data, are "going to run in to some problems."
In the long run, however, the biggest problem may be human error. Parents, teachers and administrators said their primary worry is getting students to remember their cards, given they often forget such basics as backpacks, lunch money and gym shoes. And then there might be mischief: students could trade their cards.
Still, administrators in Buffalosaid they had been contacted by districts around the country, and from numerous other countries, interested in using something similar.
And the administrators in Buffaloand here in Spring said the technology, when perfected, would eventually be a big help. Parents at the Spring district seem to feel the same way. They speak of momentary horrors of realizing their child did not arrive home when expected.
Some older students are not so enthusiastic.
"It's too Big Brother for me," said Kenneth Haines, a 15-year-old ninth grader who is on the football and debate teams. "Something about the school wanting to know the exact place and time makes me feel kind of like an animal."
Middle and high school students already wear ID badges, but they have not yet been equipped with the RFID technology. Even so, some bus drivers are apparently taking advantage of the technology's mythical powers by telling students that they are being tracked on the bus in order to get them to behave better.
Kenneth's opinion is echoed by organizations like the A.C.L.U. and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes "digital rights."
It is "naïve to believe all this data will only be used to track children in the extremely unlikely event of the rare kidnapping by a stranger," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the A.C.L.U.
Mr. Steinhardt said schools, once they had invested in the technology, could feel compelled to get a greater return on investment by putting it to other uses, like tracking where students go after school.
Advocates of the technology said they did not plan to go that far. But, they said, they do see broader possibilities, such as implanting RFID tags under the skin of children to avoid problems with lost or forgotten tags. More immediately, they said, they could see using the technology to track whether students attend individual classes.
Mr. Weisinger, the head of transportation at Spring, said that, for now, the district could not afford not to put the technology to use. Chief Bragg said the key to catching kidnappers was getting crucial information within two to four hours of a crime - information such as the last place the child was seen.
"We've been fortunate; we haven't had a kidnapping," Mr. Weisinger said. "But if it works one time finding a student who has been kidnapped, then the system has paid for itself."
November 15, 2004
Tiny Antennas to Keep Tabs on U.S.Drugs
By GARDINER HARRIS
The Food and Drug Administration and several major drug makers are expected to announce initiatives today that will put tiny radio antennas on the labels of millions of medicine bottles to combat counterfeiting and fraud.
Among the medicines that will soon be tagged are Viagra, one of the most counterfeited drugs in the world, and OxyContin, a pain-control narcotic that has become one of the most abused medicines in the United States. The tagged bottles - for now, only the large ones from which druggists get the pills to fill prescriptions - will start going to distributors this week, officials said.
Experts do not expect the technology to stop there. The adoption by the drug industry, they said in interviews, could be the leading edge of a change that will rid grocery stores of checkout lines, find lost luggage in airports, streamline warehousing and add a weapon in the battle against cargo theft.
"It's basically a bar code that barks," said one expert, Robin Koh, director of applications research at the Auto-ID Labs of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The technology, Mr. Koh said, could "make supply chains more efficient and more secure."
Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense have already mandated that their top 100 suppliers put the antennas on delivery pallets beginning in January. Radio tags on vehicles and passports could become a central tool in government efforts to create a database to track visitors to the United States. And companies are rushing to supply scanners, computer chips and other elements of the technology.
The labels are called radio-frequency identification. As in automated highway toll collection systems, they consist of computer chips embedded into stickers that emit numbers when prompted by a nearby radio signal. In a supermarket, they might enable a scanner to read every item in a shopping cart at once and spit out a bill in seconds, though the technology to do that is still some distance off.
For drug makers, radio labels hold the promise of cleaning up the wholesale distribution system, where most counterfeit drugs enter the supply chain, often through unscrupulous employees at the small wholesale companies that have proliferated in some states.
Initially, the expense of the system will be considerable. Each label costs 20 to 50 cents. The readers and scanners cost thousands of dollars. But because the medicines tend to be very expensive and the need to ensure their authenticity is great, officials said, the expense is justified.
Costs are still far too high for individual consumer goods, like the amber bottles that pharmacies use to dispense pills to individuals. But prices are expected to plunge once radio labels become popular, so drug makers represent an important set of early adopters.
Privacy-rights advocates have expressed reservations about radio labels, worrying that employers and others will be able to learn what medications people are carrying in their pockets. Civil-liberties groups have voiced similar concerns about ubiquitous use of the technology in the marketplace. But under the current initiatives, the technology would not be used at the retail level.
The food and drug agency's involvement is crucial because drug manufacturers cannot change a label without the agency's approval. In its announcement, the agency is expected to say that it is setting up a working group to resolve any problems that arise from the use of radio antennas on drug labels.
Counterfeit drugs are still comparatively rare in the United States, but federal officials say the problem is growing. Throughout the 1990's, the F.D.A. pursued about five cases of counterfeit drugs every year. In each of the last several years, the number of cases has averaged about 20, but law-enforcement officials say that figure does not reflect the extent of the problem.
Last year, more than 200,000 bottles of counterfeit Lipitor made their way onto the market. In 2001, a Sunnyvale, Calif., pharmacist discovered that bottles of Neupogen, an expensive growth hormone prescribed for AIDS and cancer patients, were filled only with saltwater.
"We've seen organized crime start to get involved," said William Hubbard, an associate food and drug commissioner. With some drugs costing thousands of dollars per vial, the profit potential is huge, he said.
The weak point, Mr. Hubbard said, is the wholesaler system, which ships more than half of the 14,000 approved prescription drugs in the United States. While three large companies - McKesson, Cardinal and AmerisourceBergen - account for more than 90 percent of drugs that are sent through wholesalers, there are thousands of smaller companies throughout the country, many little more than a room with a refrigerator.
State pharmacy boards are responsible for regulating drug wholesalers, but most boards do almost nothing to police them.
In many states, only a small fee and a registration form are needed to set up shop. A 2003 report by a Florida grand jury found that the state had 1,399 approved wholesalers, one for every three pharmacies in Florida.
Radio labels fight counterfeiting by providing a unique identifier that is almost impossible to copy. When pharmacists receive delivery, they should be able to pass a wand over the bottles and, through an online database, check the history of each.
Any bottles that have been reported missing or previously sold, have an unusual delivery history or are not recognized by the system will be flagged as suspicious.
Makers of prescription narcotics say radio labels could help cut down on the booming trade in stolen pills.
"We get calls once a week from state troopers saying they got a guy with one of our bottles," said Aaron Graham, chief security officer for Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.
With radio labels, Purdue will be able to trace those bottles to individual pharmacies. "If that pharmacy was robbed, we'll know for certain that that guy is in possession of stolen property," Mr. Graham said.
Radio labels could conceivably help ensure that imported drugs are safe, Mr. Hubbard of the F.D.A. said. But drug manufacturers are unlikely to put radio labels on drugs sold in other parts of the world for many years, he said. The F.D.A. has been a fierce opponent of legalizing drug imports.
"This is about securing the domestic supply," said Tom McGinnis, the F.D.A.'s chief pharmacist.
So far, the agency is relying on a nonprofit industry group, EPCglobal, based in Lawrenceville, N.J., to set standards for radio labels.
The labels will remain voluntary until 2007. After that, the agency may require the labels and specify which types must be used, Mr. Hubbard said.
. That includes Felipe Mathews, a 5-year-old kindergartner, and the other 30 students who rode bus No. 38 to school on a recent morning.
began automating attendance counts with computerized ID badges - one of the earliest examples of what educators said could become a widespread trend.