Globe Editorial

High-tech student IDs offer convenience, not surveillance

The front of a BostONEcard. The front of a BostONEcard.
November 1, 2010

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FEARS OF Big Brother shouldn’t sink the fledgling BostONEcard, a high-tech photo ID for students in Boston Public Schools. When the cards, which grant students access to a variety of city services, debuted recently at the Josiah Quincy Upper School in Chinatown, privacy advocates raised reasonable concerns about the volume of personal information the system could collect. But as long as the city refrains from providing the information to marketers or other third parties, the cards could be a shining example of how government can employ technology to streamline its services while improving the lives of its residents.

For students, the BostONEcard should be a welcome convenience. With one card, they will be able to ride the MBTA, check out books from public libraries, check in at school and community centers, and take advantage of school-lunch subsidies. The city hopes this change will increase students’ participation in vital programs — both because the new cards are convenient to use and because they may reduce the stigma of accepting reduced-price lunches. The digital system will also yield statistics that school officials and City Hall can use to enhance their services. The ability to collect accurate and easy-to-access digital participation records will help schools keep track of students and flag those with lagging attendance records, as well as enable the city to monitor participation trends in its community centers, libraries, and reading programs.

Critics, including privacy advocates at the American Civil Liberties Union, fear officials will use the technology to inappropriately monitor students or to profit financially by selling private information to marketers. A subpoena of city records, for example, could disclose when and to where a student has ridden the T, what library books he has checked out, and how many classes he has missed. There is little the city can do to prevent a subpoena, but it can set a policy of safeguarding student information from marketers or any other parties. Before expanding the BostONEcard to other schools, the city should clearly explain how officials will use — and protect — students’ personal information, even within the school system.

But the underlying idea is sound. With the right safeguards in place, the card will only add convenience and efficiency to students’ lives.

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