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The Mark of the Beast?

January 10, 2013

I’ve been following a case in San Antonio, Texas, over the last few months in which a couple with literalist biblical Christian beliefs had challenged their daughter’s school over its introduction of RFID-enabled name tags and here are some random thoughts. The latest news is that the pupil, Andrea Hernandez, has lost in the US District Court – it could still be taken higher. The case has attracted plenty of coverage internationally, all largely emphasizing the fact that the student concerned had been threatened with expulsion for her (or her family’s) stance, and the ‘mark of the beast’ rhetoric deployed by the parents and the organisation that enabled them to bring the case, the evangelical Christian civil rights organisation, The Rutherford Institute.

A standard Surveillance Studies analysis might be that this was another case of security at all costs in a risk society, and surveillance as the silver bullet for a non-existant problem or a at least an actual problem that might have been solved by other methods. But actually things are rather more complicated and perhaps more mundane here, and the answers seem to lie, as Francesca Menichelli has suggested in her recent (and as yet unpublished) PhD on the installation of CCTV camera systems in small towns in Italy, in regional political economy and local government competition.

According to the local newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News,  when the scheme was introduced, the plan by Northside Independepent School District was essentially not a security or an organisational issue but a matter of gaining access to extra finance. Although the scheme was estimated to cost $525,065 to implement and $136,005 per annum in administration and maintenance, the extra-detailed attendance information resulting from the chip cards could enable them district to access around $1.7 million in state grants.

Essentially, surveillance here is simply something that circulates in competition between entities -whether school districts or cities – for resources. Of course the scheme has not been studied in its actual practice yet so we don’t know what actual difference (or lack of difference) it would make to any pupil in the way that we do for Menichelli’s case-study cities, where CCTV is described as being almost entirely useless because it was never really intended to be used as anything other than a way of winning resources. However it would seem that the ‘surveillance’ is almost entirely secondary or perhaps even irrelevent. However I certainly do not dismiss the possibility that nefarious or even unintentionally damaging things could be done with the location data gathered from the chip cards.

It is also the case that the school district attempted to compromise with the pupil by offering to remove the chip from her ID card, essentially limiting the surveillance that could be conducted of her to conventional visual methods. The rejection of this compromise is the reason the District Court threw out Andrea Hernandez’s case. However if the School District is accepting that there is an opt-out possible on grounds of belief then they are potentially undermining the whole scheme – which relies on the generation of accurate attendance and circulation data. Again, one interpretation could be that they aren’t really interested in the data for itself, which reinforces the argument about the instrumental nature of the surveillance scheme in the state funding context, but the other interpretation could be that the school was banking on her exception being the only one, or one of a tiny number, that would not significantly undermine it. The other question here is: is it really the RFID chip that’s the problem, or the surveillant assemblage of which it is but one tiny part? In rejecting the compromise, Hernandez and the Rutherford Institute seem to be suggesting the latter, and here we are a long way from Christian eschatalogy and the ‘mark of the beast’.
(Thanks to Heather Morgan for initially pointing out to me that it was all about the money!)
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