South to the Future

High School Students Sabotage Security Bar Codes

October 20, 1999

AUSTIN, Texas -- In the wake of the Littleton, Colo., massacre at Columbine High, schools around the country are rushing to beef up security on campus. In addition to metal detectors, armed guards, and anger-management workshops, some schools are adopting bar code technology to keep track of students.

Bar coding students has proved to be far cheaper and much less intrusive than stationing police officers on campus in Austin, Texas. At Austin High, one of the 300 schools nationwide to add bar codes to student identification cards, students are now required to wear safety badges at all times.

Teachers and security guards at the school employ a hand-held scanning device based on Palm Pilot technology to take attendance and monitor hall access. Each ID bears a student's unique class schedule, emergency contact information, and disciplinary records. Or so school officials thought.

On a Tuesday afternoon in the first week of October, a fight broke out in the Austin High library over the use of an Internet terminal. But what normally would have been a brief dispute quickly escalated into a carrel-clearing melee because of the number of students present. When the fight broke out, over 80 students were crowded into a space designed to accommodate no more than 40 students at one time.

When the students were hauled down to principal P.G. Piper's office to be disciplined, administrators were astonished to find out that according to their IDs, all 80 of the students were assigned to the same "free reading period." Normally only 10 to 15 of Austin High's best students receive the privilege of an unmonitored study hall.

"It quickly dawned on us that our problems were much more serious than a simple student-to-student altercation," Piper recalls. "Such a high number of students assigned to free study could only mean that someone had infiltrated the bar code security system."

That someone turned out to be a junior by the name of Quiqui (pronounced kee-kee) Martinez. A disciplinary case with poor grades in all subjects except math, Martinez used his home computer and one of the school's own photo scanners to crack the new bar code system. The computer savvy prankster then created a series of "get out of jail free" bar codes that, when affixed to official student IDs, would permanently excuse students from participating in gym class and qualify them for several consecutive periods of unsupervised "study" time.

Rather than personally distributing counterfeit IDs, Martinez simply posted the bar codes, along with instructions for their manufacture and use, on AOL. The Web page was eventually yanked in response to complaints from Austin High, although not before hundreds of students had downloaded one of the 25 different bar code profiles created by the enterprising Martinez.

School officials have not yet been able to determine the extent to which their new security system has been compromised by the fake bar codes. Martinez, who was expelled in the wake of the incident, now has a lawyer and is suing Austin High.

"The school district put the safety and well-being of its students in the hands of a computer system," argues Martinez's attorney Nick Blackbridge. "And then it tries to cover up its mistake by sacrificing this young man's future. Quiqui Martinez is entitled to free speech, even if that speech takes the form of a bar code."

The administration of Austin High has refused to comment on the Martinez suit. However, officials are currently debating whether to continue using the bar code system or to scrap it altogether in favor of on-campus police.

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments? Holler@sttf.org.

 
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