I was watching CBBC with my daughter this morning – waiting for the wonderful Horrible Histories to begin – when on came ‘Newsround’, the children’s news programme. On it there was a short item that sent chills down my spine: a plan (which I was later informed has already come into practice in Brazil) to put RFID chips into school uniforms, to monitor truancy and tardiness.
The idea is ‘clever’ – the chips automatically send text messages to their parents when the kids enter school or if they’re more than 20 minutes late. Given the current issues with truancy – including the recent suggestion that child benefit should be docked for persistent truants – it may well be a very attractive idea for the government and even for schools, particularly if schools are being ‘rated’ for truancy levels. And yet there’s something deeply disturbing about it – not least the way that it was reported on Newround, in a matter-of-fact way, as though this sort of thing was just a welcome and natural development of technology, without a word or hint of the ‘dark side’ of it.
When I tweeted about it, I got some immediate and very interesting responses. A number of people told me about the existing systems that require fingerprinting to get school meals – apparently one in seven schools in the UK insist on it, according to a report in the Guardian last year. That in itself is pretty chilling – and the Guardian report details many other examples of intrusive control in schools, from the ever growing number of CCTV cameras to the desire to be able to take kids phones and so forth. There are, of course, metal detectors and even armed police in some US schools, but it hasn’t come to that yet in the UK. That doesn’t mean that it won’t – or at least that similarly draconian levels of control, perhaps using more ‘civilised’ and ‘British’ methods than armed police.
Draconian control rarely ‘works’
What’s wrong with all this? Where to start…. One of my twitter responses, from the excellent @daraghobrien, predicted ‘a brisk trade in jumper swapping or storing uniform items in bags for truanting friends’, with his tongue only partly in his cheek – and there are many more equally enterprising possibilities, such as sabotaging a bit of uniform to take in any number of chips onto a single garment, allowing one person to ‘check in’ for all their mates.
Attempts at control like this rarely have the desired effect. Kids are ingenious and enterprising enough to find ways to mess with any system the grown-ups are likely to put in – which would doubtless result in further escalations, and perhaps the suggestion of another excellent privacy tweeter, @cybermatron: ‘My estimate still is that our kids will be microchipped at birth within the next 20 years. For their own protection, of course‘.
Is that where we’re headed? If we think that we can solve behavioural problems by closer monitoring and control, it’s hard not to come to that kind of conclusion. I’ve written about connected issues before (my blog a couple of months back Do you want a camera in your kid’s bedroom?? for example): there seems to be a tendency to try to use technology – and in particular privacy-intrusive technology – to try to solve problems for which it is entirely unsuited. There also seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of kids.
Kids need freedom
Why have do so many adults seem to have forgotten what it was like to be a kid? What they liked to do when they were a kid? Kids need freedom to grow, to learn, to play. They need privacy – as a father of a five year old, I’ve already learned a lot about that. There are things that my daughter needs to keep to herself, or to talk to her friends about without her parents or her teachers knowing. We all know that, if only we think back to our own childhoods – and not just ‘bad’ things, but good things, personal things. If we go along the route of total surveillance, of attempting total control, we deny ordinary children that freedom, without even solving the problems that we want to solve!
Making surveillance and control ‘acceptable’
Perhaps just as importantly, if this kind of thing becomes the norm – and the ‘matter-of-fact’ way it was reported makes that far more likely – are we teaching kids that surveillance is acceptable? Numbing them? Chilling them? From a government perspective, if they can get kids ‘used’ to surveillance from as early as possible and there’ll be much less resistance when the government wants to bring in even more draconian measures – like the new CCDP programme of total internet surveillance currently under discussion. This is wrong in so many ways….
Can we stop it?
My daughter’s five years old – in year 1 – and hasn’t yet had to deal with any of these things. I don’t want her to have to – so if I hear anything from her school suggesting anything even slightly in this direction, I’ll be speaking out at every opportunity. We all should be – and telling all our politicians, our educators, our police, that it’s wholly unacceptable. Whether that will be enough is far from clear.
After I watched the bulletin on Newsround, I watched Horrible Histories – and wondered, not for the first time, how our period in history will be remembered in years to come. Horrible Histories has ‘Rotten Romans’, ‘Terrible Tudors’ and ‘Vile Victorians’ – and the sketches on the TV show point out the crazy, extreme and terrible things that have happened in each of those ages. How will they show the kind of thing we’re planning to do to our kids? I shudder to think…
PLEASE LOOK AT THE COMMENTS – THERE’S MORE TO READ!