Monday, 26 November 2012

The Right Thing for Bad Reasons

A story the BBC classifies as Technology, but I prefer Scary as Shit:
A court challenge has delayed plans to expel a Texan student for refusing to wear a radio tag that tracked her movements.
Religious reasons led Andrea Hernandez to stop wearing the tag that revealed where she was on her school campus.
The tags were introduced to track students and help tighten control of school funding.
Ms Hernandez refused to wear the tag because it conflicted with her religious beliefs, according to court papers. Wearing such a barcoded tag can be seen as a mark of the beast as described in Revelation 13 in the Bible, Ms Hernandez's father told Wired magazine in an interview.
So.  Where to begin?

I guess the one good thing about this whole story comes in the first line, that the court has ruled in favour of Ms Hernandez.  Because let's be frank here, the school's plans are terrifying.  Making every student wear a radio tracking device?  What the fuck?  Does the concept of privacy mean anything?

The stated reasons for this project surveillance are not horrible.  School districts need to understand how best to allocate their funding in order to make best use of their resources.  But their are other ways to get this kind of information that don't involve such a flagrant disregard for student rights.  You'd need an incredibly good reason to convince me that such an action is even considerable, like saving lives; saving a little money isn't nearly enough.

So, I support Ms Hernandez and the Rutherford Institute that is supporting her in their efforts to challenge this program.  Indeed, it is difficult for a student to make a stand like this; I don't know if I would have been willing to at that age.  And the court's ruling is promising, though I'd expect the USA judiciary to make the right call in a case like this.

Where I have to disagree is the in the reasons given for the objection.  Now, admittedly on the basis of this report I don't know if this "mark of the beast" line is a genuine feeling, or simply the one that they felt would play best with the courts.  But neither case is exactly reassuring.  This is all tied in with belief about the Antichrist and the ever-popular idea that the End of the World is just around the corner!  That is not a good foundation for policy.

Also worrying is this statement from John Whitehead, head of the Rutherford Institute:
Mr Whitehead said student tagging and locating projects were the first step in producing a "compliant citizenry".
"These 'student locator' programmes are ultimately aimed at getting students used to living in a total surveillance state where there will be no privacy, and wherever you go and whatever you text or email will be watched by the government," he said.
Hmm.  Smells like conspiracy theory.  Pretty rank, too.

So.  The right thing for wrong reasons.  But, in fairness, people like Mr Whitehead offer a useful perspective, an early warning canary that we should have good reason to ignore.  And while I'd probably respect Ms Hernandez more if she objected on the grounds that the tag clashed with her shoes, I support her both for her goal, and because people should have the right to do things that harm no one else for religious reasons.

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