A San Antonio teenager and her family are suing her school district over a creepy new initiative launched this fall that requires students to carry ID badges with GPS chips that can track them at all times. But according to Andrea Hernandez and her conservative Christian parents, that’s not the creepy part. The badges—like most IDs of any form these days—have barcodes that allow students to electronically check books out of the library, pay for food in the cafeteria, and the like. That barcode, says the Hernandez family, is the “mark of the Beast” prophesied in the New Testament Book of Revelation, and the school district's requirement that Andrea carry or wear a card bearing the code violates her religious rights.
Say what? I thought this particular conspiracy theory died out in the '80s, the last time I heard about it. But just like jelly shoes and Molly Ringwald, it’s back. The theory, which bubbled up around the time that UPC barcodes and scanners became a standard way of marking and tracking products, is based on a very creative reading of Revelation 13, which mentions “the mark of the Beast” (a compatriot of the Antichrist). An apocalyptic book with certain prophesies about the End Times, Revelation includes this account of the Beast: “He forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark in his right hand or in his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.” What is that number? “Let he that has wisdom count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.”
A rumor spread among some conservative Christians that all UPC barcodes contain three sixes. That's not true. Nor, you’ll have noticed, is anyone running around with barcodes tattooed on her right hand or forehead, but these are mere quibbles. The new universal method of marking cereal boxes and other products was enough to spook some segments of the conservative Christian world, including televangelist Pat Robertson.
(One of my favorite accounts of how contorted End Times teaching could become is in the memoir of TNR friend Christine Rosen, My Fundamentalist Education. Rosen, who grew up attending a Christian school in Florida, writes of worrying as a fifth-grader about whether Ronald Reagan was the Antichrist—surely not the intent of her conservative teachers. “Each part of his full name, Ronald Wilson Reagan, contained six letters. Reagan also had survived an assassination attempt, which Revelation said the Antichrist would: ‘And his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.”’)
Concern about UPC codes waned in the 1990s as the United Nations became a more tempting representation of the Antichrist’s global reach. They make no appearance, for example, in the best-selling Left Behind books by fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye that draw on the details and prophecies of Revelation. But as so many conspiracy theorists have used the internet to find others with similar worldviews, Christians obsessed with the mark of the Beast have connected to share fears about barcodes on drivers licenses and the troubling future of a cashless society that relies instead on chips and codes.
And so the Hernandez family objects to the requirement that their daughter carry an ID badge that bears a barcode. Andrea’s school actually agreed to remove the tracking chip from her badge (called a SmartID), but that wasn’t their concern. It should be. According to the Associated Press, the ACLU objected to a similar initiative in 2005 when it was introduced in California. No one disputes the need for schools to be able to locate students in buildings, but that’s traditionally been accomplished through accessing their class schedules or using, say, intercoms—not Big Brother technology.
The San Antonio school district claims it needs the GPS-chip program in order to maximize its funding under the Texas formula, which is based on daily attendance. If a student isn't in homeroom at the moment attendance is taken, the school could lose as much as $30 per student; tracking chips elsewhere on campus could help the school pad its attendance count. That's not a terribly compelling rationale, nor are the other examples a district spokesman suggested to the AP: “Imagine quickly accounting for students in the event of a lockdown, he said, or cafeteria lines moving faster as scanners instantly identify who's picking up that lunch tray.” A future in which institutions electronically track schoolchildren in order to expedite the acquisition of nachos may not be one of the signs of the Apocalypse, but it’s still pretty alarming.