Critics liken it to tagging livestock or store merchandise, but some primary schools, alarmed by recent abductions of schoolchildren, are testing out a tagging system to track their students and keep them out of harm's way.
Operating like a time clock, a wireless integrated circuit (IC) tag measuring 6 by 3 centimeters and attached to a knapsack or carried in a pocket automatically registers when the child enters or leaves the school.
Using an Internet connection, teachers and parents can then check what time a child arrives at school in the morning and when he or she leaves in the afternoon. The information can be sent to up to three e-mail addresses.
In late September, Rikkyo Primary School, a private school in Ikebukuro, Toshima Ward, Tokyo, handed out tags to 40 fourth-grade students. This month, the experiment will be expanded to include about 120 students, or one-sixth of the student body. Every child at the school is expected to be in the system by April 2005.
``We want to be able to keep close tabs on where our children are,'' said Rikkyo Primary School teacher Teruyoshi Ishii.
Ironically, however, some experts have voiced concerns about the security of the system itself, fearing that personal information could be picked up by strangers over the airwaves.
At a general meeting of the Parent Teacher Association in September, Rikkyo Primary School authorities tried to quell such fears, pointing out that personal information could not be leaked because neither a child's name nor address are recorded by the device.
The majority of parents are pleased the school is taking such steps because some of the students commute relatively long distances. School officials also say no parent has so far objected to taking part in the experiment. And, at an estimated cost of 1,000 yen a year per child, the tagging system is affordable.
Despite the favorable reaction of parents, as well as the school's well-meaning efforts to prevent and detect kidnappings, some experts are expressing concern.
Hiromitsu Takagi, head of the Secure Programming Team under the Grid Technology Research Center of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, has grave doubts about the security of the system itself.
According to Takagi, it would be simple for a stranger to keep track of a child by setting up an antenna to pick up the radio waves sent out by the child's IC tag.
For example, a potential abductor could stake out the home of a rich family to pick up the signal from the tag in the house. Later, this person could easily track the child on his or her way home from school by homing in on the signal sent from the knapsack, making the child an easy target for kidnapping.
``I wonder if it's worth the risk just to find out what time a student gets to and leaves school,'' Takagi said. ``School authorities, teachers and parents should thoroughly discuss the issue before the system is implemented on a wide scale.''
A telecommunications ministry official concurs. ``The subjects of parents' rights and children's privacy need to be further discussed when the IC tracking technology is applied to children,'' the official said.
Commonly attached to store merchandise and livestock, the IC tags are used as anti-theft devices, or for inventory and distribution purposes.
In the United States, where IC tags are in common use in the distribution and livestock industries, the reaction of mothers is split on their use on children in Japan.
On Oct. 14, the ABC-TV network ran a news segment in the United States reporting on the tagging experiment undertaken by Japanese primary schools, including Rikkyo. Some American mothers supported the effort, saying it was good if it prevented kidnappings, while others found the idea of tracking children like livestock or pets distasteful.
Although privacy and security issues have yet to be sorted out, other primary schools have also been testing the system.
Iwamura Elementary School in Iwamura, Gifu Prefecture, started testing a similar IC-tag system in September with the help of a private-public joint venture financed by the municipal government and private companies.
Four antennas were set up, one at the school gate and three along the route to the school, to detect children passing nearby.
The telecommunications ministry also plans to study the practical uses of the IC tag. The ministry's Kinki bureau plans to begin testing the system at a primary school in Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture shortly.(IHT/Asahi: November 4,2004)