Who'll keep an eye on surveillance?

27th August 2010 at 01:00

It is surprising how little attention has been paid to the rise of surveillance technologies in British schools. Even the 2006 report of the Information Commissioner, who warned against "sleepwalking into a surveillance society", had less to say about surveillance in schools than in the workplace, transportation infrastructures and the criminal justice system.

There is a problem here because, if we are becoming a "surveillance society", schools ought to be preparing pupils for its complex realities and fostering critical perspectives, not simply habituating them to one data-gathering routine after another.

It is not just the CCTV cameras that monitor gates, corridors and classrooms. There are electronic registration and access systems, using swipe cards or fingerprint scanners, linked to telephone and text systems which notify parents of their child's safe arrival at school. There are library management and cashless catering systems, using "biometric" identifiers; some of the catering systems have been used to monitor children's eating habits and to reward those who make the healthiest choices.

Some schools have used metal detector "search arches" to reduce knife- carrying, subjecting all pupils to them in order to avoid the discriminatory "profiling" of suspicious pupils.

These initiatives can be, and have been, justified on a combination of security, efficiency or cost grounds, but the rationales of particular systems can shift and multiply over time. Even the most obviously crime- preventative technology, CCTV, has latterly been accepted by some teachers as a helpful means of ensuring accountability, if and when pupils make allegations against them.

These developments affect both primary and secondary schools, although the efficiency case for biometric identifiers can sometimes be made more readily for primaries, where pupils can so easily lose their library cards and dinner tickets. Even nurseries are not immune: some have internet- accessible webcams. This is reassuring for parents, who can literally "look in" from afar, but it is "workplace surveillance" for the staff.

Neither the UK nor Scottish governments seem to know how prevalent these technologies are, and no research has been done to look at their impact on school life, as it affects pupils and staff. Some research on CCTV is beginning to appear in British schools, and academic literature on schools and surveillance is emerging in the US, where trends developing here have been apparent for some time.

A group of us in Strathclyde University's former faculty of education became interested in the subject when, in September 2008, the Scottish Government published draft guidance on the use of biometric technologies in schools. The guidance, and the 23 responses to it later published online in January 2009, gave us significant insights into the state of Scottish debate on the subject. The guidance explained the technical, legal and administrative issues clearly but, while recognising that some schools and local authorities were already using biometric systems, ostensibly on understandable cost and efficiency grounds, these guidelines tilted gently, if not decisively, against them.

It was reassuring on the security of the technology and strong on the importance of consultation with parents (if not on actual "consent"), but weak on the importance of consultation with pupils and staff. It looked at biometric systems in isolation from other surveillance technologies and did not describe biometrics as "surveillance", as if recognising that the S-word is so freighted with repressive connotations that fair and reasonable debate can be made more difficult when issues are framed in terms of it.

It proposed periodic "privacy impact assessments" to check the development of biometric systems, but missed the point that they are most needed in relation to aggregate surveillance systems in contemporary schools, not just single technologies.

The range of responses to the draft guidance reflected the sense of uncertainty about these technologies in society at large. Are they innocuous or not? Is a fuss being made about nothing? Just because fingerprints are symbolically associated with incrimination and criminal justice surely does not mean that a different sort of scanning technology, which encodes the print as a numberstring rather than an image, could not be benignly used as a means of access control?

In the main, though, there was scepticism, considerable anxiety about data security (especially against the backcloth of increasing multi-agency co- operation in child protection) and doubts about the real efficiencies entailed. One primary school flatly rejected such "Orwellian" approaches.

Several councils grasped that such technologies might inadvertently acclimatise pupils to the grim realities of the "surveillance society" they may face as adults, lending support to our own view that, at least at secondary level, the topic of "surveillance" nowadays needs to be more prominent in the curriculum, and its drivers and consequences in both schools and society better communicated than hitherto.

The topic encompasses, at the very least, questions about technology, civil liberties, social networking and representations in film and literature. The current exhibition in the London Science Museum - "the science of spying" - shows how it could be done, and is in itself further evidence of an emerging awareness that we all need a better understanding of who watches over us, how and why they do it, and what they do with the data.

Tom Bryce is in Strathclyde University's former school of education

Mike Nellis is in Strathclyde University's school of applied social sciences.

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