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Expert Comment: School Surveillance Changing Children's Definitions of Privacy

CCTV Camera Thursday 13 September 2012

Dr David Lundie, Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope, looks at reports of a surge in CCTV surveillance in schools.

Press attention[1][2][3] has recently been drawn to a report from pressure group Big Brother Watch, reporting a surge in CCTV surveillance in schools in recent years. Defenders of the move are quick to report that cameras are only monitored in response to specific incidents, but sustained studies on their effectiveness are few and far between. The report itself represents the results of requests made under the Freedom of Information Act, not a consensual research project undertaken in partnership with schools.

While the reality of this situation may be far from the dystopian vision suggested by the title of the report: ‘The Class of 1984[4], the issues it raises point to bigger questions for the meaning of childhood, personhood, and privacy in an always-connected world. Parents’ reluctance to challenge proposals presented as ‘safeguarding measures’[5] for their children raises questions about the meaning and effectiveness of consent. While parental consent is now needed before schools can gather biometric data such as fingerprints, when this data is linked to systems such as meal plans and school registers, ‘opting out’ often means being singled out.

It is not only in schools that our understanding of ‘consent’ is being eroded, one recent study suggests the opportunity cost if everyone actually took the time to read the terms, conditions and privacy policies of the websites they use, before signalling their agreement, would be around $1,000,000 a day in lost working hours. The entrepreneur Austin Hill once famously commented: “Ask 100 people if they care about privacy and 85 will say yes. Ask those same 100 people if they’ll give you a DNA sample just to get a free Big Mac, and 85 will say yes.”

The incursion of ‘big data’ into schools, with companies like ScholarChip, a subsidiary of Scienta Distributed Data Solutions, which provides database support to banks and advertising firms, supplying tailored packages, highlights the fact that children’s privacy is not only threatened by CCTV. Increasingly, the threats to privacy are not limited to a single source, rendering moves to regulate CCTV or biometric data in isolation ineffective.

Instead, the problem lies in what Helen Nissenbaum calls ‘contextual integrity’ – data gathered in one context, sold, aggregated with other data, and used for a whole different purpose. Drawing together our loyalty card purchases, facial recognition technology on Facebook (currently being challenged by German data protection regulators[6]), online purchases, our disclosed location through mobile applications such as Foursquare, it is possible for advertisers to understand and target fine-grained details of our lives.

In the face of such an apparently overwhelming assault, it is easy to assume the battle is already lost. Some will switch off, unplug, and attempt to go ‘off grid’, but this would be to ignore the fact that digital technologies and connectivity have made our lives better in so many ways. Moral psychologist Dawn Schrader and electronic engineer Steven Wicker at Cornell University have suggested a more balanced response. When designing new systems, they suggest, engineers need to think about what data the system really needs to collect in order to do its’ job – a mobile phone mast, for example, needs to know whether a phone in its area is on the correct network, but doesn’t need to know the identity of every user when they are not placing a call. By taking more care about how information is gathered and transferred, it would be possible to preserve that private sphere necessary to allow all of us to make decisions about our own lives more freely.

Why does any of this matter? If I have nothing to hide, why should I be concerned about this? According to many studies of moral development, those who only avoid breaking the rules when they are concerned about being caught and punished have not progressed to an appreciation of morality that allows them to make more complex decisions or to challenge authority.

If we bring our children up in an environment modelled on the prison system, which assumes the only guard against bad behaviour is the threat of being watched at all times, we deprive them of the freedom to test the boundaries, to transgress, to respond in their own way, to negotiate who they will admit into their acquaintance and who not, and to understand what motivates them from within.

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