Doin’ it for the kids?

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…



16 thoughts on “Doin’ it for the kids?

  1. As you’ll be aware (and as the linked Guardian article mentions) The Protection of Freedoms Bill (currently in ping-pong between Commons and Lords) has provisions addressing the use of biometric information in schools which if enacted would require parental consultation and consent before their child could be subject to this sort of intrusion, but, crucially, would mean that if the child did not consent then the processing could not occur.

    Let’s hope this gets passed. But let’s also hope that, in the interim, or if it doesn’t, the Information Commissioner exercises his powers to achieve similar aims.

    1. Agreed! I’m not sure what would happen, for example, if a kid (and their parents) refused fingerprinting, but still wanted school lunches. That wouldn’t be a processing issue, exactly…. I haven’t read the details, I have to admit!

  2. The Irish enactment of 95/46/EC would make this illegal without parental consent for children who aren’t competent to give consent (we work largely off the Gillick competency test) or the consent of the child themselves. A cursory scan of related legislation here suggests that making it a mandatory requirement to actually attend school to be rfid tagged could run into difficulties under the Constitution, various pieces of legislation in the Education sector, as well as the DPC’s guidance re: biometrics.

    1. Thanks – I suspect it would be illegal without consent here too, but how that consent would be gained would be another matter, and whether they could find a way to avoid the issue is yet another. Parental consent is often gained in such a cursory way that it’s all but meaningless – when my brother had his kids fingerprinted during a police visit to school, it was dressed up as a ‘fun’ exercise in such a way that anyone who objected (and thus refused consent) would have seemed like anti-social killjoys….

  3. An organisation called ARCH Action for Rights for Children did a lot of good work on this topic for several years but I can’t find them on the web now. Remember ‘Contactpoint’? when data on every child at school in England was to have been entered on a new database.

    1. Thanks – I’ll have to check them out. I haven’t done children’s rights stuff for a long time, but it used to be one of my ‘things’… I did a course with the late lamented Peter Townsend at the LSE on the subject…

  4. Don’t have an issue with the fingerprinting for meals at school. My children’s school does it, it was properly implemented with full consultation and only done through parental consent. An account is created for a child and topped up with money, those on free school meals have their accounts credited with their entitlement therefore not stigmatising them in the dinner queue. No money is lost or stolen and dinner queues work faster. A move forward into embracing new technologies.

    As for this system talked about in Brazil do we not already have something similar? It’s called a register! I can access SIMS online at home to check my children have made it into class or if they have been late. I really do not see a problem with this. Agree that tagging jumpers will eventually lead to pupils cheating the system. But the good old register where the teacher sees the human face, you can’t beat it!

    1. Thanks for the comment – and I agree with you 100% about the register. That’s the right way to do it – without the kinds of risks attached to the RFID system.

      I do have some questions, however, about the fingerprinting, and over the consultation at your school – and about the implementation of the programme.

      Firstly, were any alternative systems offered, not involving fingerprinting or the gathering of any biometric data?

      Secondly, were you told how long the fingerprint data would be held, and what kind of guarantees were you given that it wouldn’t be used for any function other than school dinners?

      One of the biggest problems with systems like these is that they involve the gathering and holding of data – and once that data has been gathered, it’s vulnerable. One key vulnerability is to ‘function creep’ – once data’s there, it might end up being used for other things. Suppose something got stolen from the school, and fingerprints were found at the scene – would they check the ‘dinner database’ to see if they could identify the culprit? Then, suppose something got stolen from a shop near the school – would the police ask for access to the dinner database then? Then, if there was a ‘riot’ near the school, would they ask for access? Then would they decide the dinner database should be merged with their existing fingerprint database, for use for all crimes?

      That may sound far-fetched, but things like that have happened – see my other blog, ‘If you build it they will come…’ and in all areas of data it needs to be considered very carefully.

      Other vulnerabilities include the obvious hacking – how secure will the data be? If it can be hacked, the fingerprints can be used for all kinds of other things, including identity theft, creation of false IDs – there have even been rumours of false ‘child IDs’ being created by paedophiles to gain access to children’s website. A ‘dinner database’ would be ripe for that kind of hacking.

      Once data is there, it’s vulnerable – those who should be best able to guard their data, from Swiss Banks to the Ministry of Defence and Sony, have all lost sensitive data. The only way to stop it being vulnerable is not to gather it in the first place. For that reason, any system based on data gathering should be entered into with great care – and if alternatives are available, they should be considered… like registers!

  5. I’m against chipping people as though they were animals. I hope every kid who ends up with one of those RFID chips in their uniforms, finds it and cuts it out.

    Is CCDP the same thing as ACTA?

  6. i’m glad I checked the comments because I didn’t really understand the difference between a register or a fingerprint: It just seemed like new technology. But now you have highlighted it I do see that holding data is a problem. It bothers me the amount of information already stored about my children. They went to a sure start centre from 9 months and the staff’s daily observations on their antics will be kept on record until they apply for university. I have this irrational fear of them being denied a place because aged 2 they were considered to have ‘less than 50 words’ or couldn’t stack 5 bricks.

  7. Thanks for the comment – I should probably point out the comments! One of the problems is that the amount of data held is growing all the time – many people seem to think that if you record something then you’ll solve a problem, while the opposite is often true: all you’re doing is storing up future problems. A huge amount of the data held is no help to the child or the parents at all – but might be misused in the future.

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