What did you learn in school today?

Wendy Grossman introduces a series of education themed articles on ORGzine with a look at the lessons kids are learning from the amount of personal data monitored in schools – finger printing to check library books out, cameras in toilets and tracking chips originally intended for livestock registering attendance.

Image: CC-BY-SA Flickr: chadmiller

 One of the more astonishing bits of news this week came from Big Brother Watch: 207 schools across Britain have placed 825 CCTV cameras in toilets or changing rooms. The survey included more than 2,000 schools, so what this is basically saying is that a tenth of the schools surveyed apparently saw nothing wrong in spying on its pupils in these most intimate situations. Overall, the survey found that English, Welsh, and Scottish secondary schools and academies have a total of 106,710 cameras overall, or an average camera-to-pupil ratio of 1:38. As a computer scientist would say, this is non-trivial.

Some added background: the mid 2000s saw the growth of fingerprinting systems for managing payments in school cafeterias, checking library books in and out, and registering attendance. In 2008, the Leave Them Kids Alone campaign, set up by a concerned parent, estimated that more than 2 million UK kids had been fingerprinted, often without the consent of their parents. The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 finally requires schools and colleges to get parental consent before collecting children's biometrics. That doesn't stop the practice but at least it establishes that these are serious decisions whose consequences need to be considered.

Meanwhile, Ruth Coustick, the editor of the Open Rights Group's ORGzine, sends the story that a Texas school district is requiring pupils to carry RFID-enabled (Radio Frequency Identification Device) chips cards at all times while on school grounds. The really interesting element is that the real goal here is primarily and unashamedly financial, imposed on the school by its district: the school gets paid per pupil per day, and if a student isn't in homeroom when the teacher takes attendance, that's a little less money to finance the school in doing its job. The RFID cards enable the school to count the pupils who are present somewhere on the grounds but not in their seats, as if they were laptops in danger of being stolen. In the Wired write-up linked above, the school's principal seems not to see any privacy issues connecting to the fact that the school can track kids anywhere on the campus. It's good for safety. And so on.

There is constant debate about what kids should be taught in schools with respect to computers. In these discussions, the focus tends to be on what kids should be directly taught. When I covered Young Rewired State in 2011, one of the things we asked the teams I followed was about the state of computer education in their schools. Their answers: dire. Schools, apparently under the impression that their job was to train the office workforce of the previous decade, were teaching kids how to use word processors, but nothing or very little about how computers work, how to program, or how to build things.

There are signs that this particular problem is beginning to be rectified. Things like the Raspberry Pi and the Arduino, coupled with open source software, are beginning provide ways to recapture teaching in this area, essential if we are to have a next generation of computer scientists. This is all welcome stuff: teaching kids about computers by supplying them with fundamentally closed devices like iPads and Kindles is the equivalent of teaching kids sports by wheeling in a TV and playing a videotape of last Monday's US Open final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.

But here's the most telling quote from that Wired article: "The kids are used to being monitored."

Yes, they are. And when they are adults, they will also be used to being monitored. I'm not quite paranoid enough to suggest that there's a large conspiracy to "soften up" the next generation (as Terri Dowty used to put it when she was running Action for the Rights of Children), but you can have the effect whether or not you have the intent. All these trends are happening in multiple locations: in the UK, for example, there were experiments in 2007 with school uniforms with embedded RFID  (that wouldn't work in the US, where school uniforms are a rarity); in the trial, these not only tracked students' movements but pulled up data on academic performance.

These are the lessons we are teaching these kids indirectly. We tell them that putting naked photos on Facebook is a dumb idea and may come back to bite them in the future - but simultaneously we pretend to them that their electronic school records, down to the last, tiniest infraction, pose no similar risk. We tell them that plagiarism is bad and try to teach them about copyright and copying - but real life is meanwhile teaching them that a lot of news is scraped almost directly from press releases and that cheating goes on everywhere from financial markets and sports to scientific research. And although we try to tell them that security is important, we teach them by implication that it's OK to use sensitive personal data such as fingerprints and other biometrics for relatively trivial purposes, even knowing that these data's next outing may be to protect their bank accounts and validate their passports.

We should remember: what we do to them now they will do to us when we are old and feeble, and they're the ones in charge.

 

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series

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By Wendy Grossman on Sep 17, 2012

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