openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Another brick in the wall – can we save child rights from school surveillance?

30 years ago the Berlin Wall fell, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was born. But British children’s privacy rights are now being breached at a scale few parents are aware of.

Jen Persson
22 November 2019
School corridor
Tom Parnell/Wikicommons, CC 2.0

What were you doing thirty years ago this week?

Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers were getting everybody to twist again, riding high in the UK charts. We were halfway through the third Thatcher government. The poll tax was starting up. The Berlin Wall was coming down.

I remember watching that. I remember people laughing and dancing through the checkpoints to reclaim their freedom of movement. The funny little cars and the mullets. Reunions of long lost loved ones. I only learned about the full political, economic and social implications much later.

Thirty years ago you might have missed the beginnings of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UNCRC was opened for signature on November 20th 1989 and went on to be adopted by 194 countries. Only Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States have not done so yet. But the UK Government has not directly incorporated the Convention into domestic law, nor has it signed and ratified the third optional protocol to the Convention, which would allow children to bring individual complaints to the UNCRC. The current status of the Convention in UK law does not provide any guarantee that it will be respected.

One of its key rights is that no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.

Children born behind the Berlin Wall grew up under a panopticon of surveillance. Restrictions on privacy, on freedoms of association, of expression, and on behaviour were the norm. There was zero tolerance of non-conformity.

Visit the former Berlin Stasi HQ today, and you will see miles of rows of hand-written tan coloured record cards. Each stores seemingly insignificant details about everyday behaviours of everyday people who had come to the attention of the authorities, often via their neighbours with a grudge. There are descriptions of people who looked different, like 'skinhead'. Each card has a unique, permanent ID number.

Yet mass monitoring our children’s lives by the British state today has been introduced at a scale and speed that would have been the envy of the Stasi state surveillance apparatus, unthinkable in 1989.

Private education affords you more privacy, but for state school children, named records, each with massive amounts of data, are extracted termly, and built up at national level from age two, through each Key Stage test, to the age of 19 and beyond. Students’ sexual orientation and religion get added from higher education, and it is all later linked together with DWP and tax records, creating lifetime records.

As reported in the Guardian and Schools Week, the Information Commissioner has recently recognised as part of its interim findings on the misuse of national pupil records, that many parents and pupils are entirely unaware of the school census and the National Pupil Database. The Department for Education is "failing to comply fully with its data protection obligations, primarily in the areas of transparency and accountability, where there are far reaching issues, impacting a huge number of individuals in variety of ways."

The Home Office interference with school children’s rights began in secret at national level in 2015 by using school records for immigration enforcement. The enhanced Prevent programme and duty on schools started the same year, and means some schools now decide to keep local records of children’s participation even in climate protests, as records of ‘extremism’.

The Department for Education introduced new guidance as a result and suggested monitoring of all Internet use. Though no single solution was recommended, both my own research and companies' marketing materials suggest well over 70% of secondary schools and a significant number of primary schools and nurseries have introduced the technology to do so.

The latest machine monitoring doesn’t stop at the end of the school day, or stay within the school gates either. There is widespread interference by commercial companies in the home, and in private time. Many schools impose Internet surveillance software on children’s personal devices that get taken home, watching out for signs of self-harm, bullying, stranger danger or radicalisation and terrorism, inferring risks by matching search terms and screen content with thousands of trigger words in proprietary keyword libraries. Records go on to other databases that families don’t know they are in.

At local level, significant money is spent on physical surveillance systems including obligatory ID badges, RFID tags, CCTV in bathrooms and corridors, body and headcams in the classroom, 360 cameras the size of a 50 pence piece that continuously record voice and movement. Fingerprinting for cashless payment systems, or just to borrow a library book has become routine. Monitoring children’s reading via a commercial online platform can make children feel a failure if they have not bettered their word count of the previous month. They understand they "got worse at reading." And then there’s all the learning surveillance that goes on through quiz apps and platforms on top of all the standardised testing, CATS, PISA and so on. Parents may also receive emails or see in-app advertising upselling premium content.

Skinheads are generally not allowed in school today under stringent hair policies, but some schools’ issues with dreadlocks and cornrows will no doubt feature in children’s behavioural records which may or may not be seen by parents and guardians at home. Algorithms that teachers cannot see into determine a wide range of decisions affecting children’s lives, based on building up behavioural profiles, from seemingly simple things like which child may sit where in the classroom, to the much more serious. Many local authorities use commercial companies that create risk predictions claiming prophetic powers for domestic violence or child abuse. One boy told researchers he’d asked why he was included in a twelve-week school exclusions intervention programme. He’ll not forget being told, because it was for all “the worst kids.” Working ineffectively with high-risk young people may actually be worse than doing nothing at all. These kinds of machine led decisions can have lasting human costs and it is impossible for a child to seek any route of redress.

But who is watching the watchers, and what are the costs for our children?

The extent of this monitoring is still largely unseen by children and parents. They are unaware of how the data produced join up over a child’s single day and lifetime, producing a record that would fill index cards, miles long. When Unique Pupil Numbers (UPNs) were first introduced by the Department for Education, measures were agreed in order to minimise the potential risks to the personal privacy of individuals and to ensure UPNs are used within the educational service only. Those measures have been lost, and the risks realised.

After the Berlin Wall fell, the impact of constant monitoring became clearer in hindsight. East Germans discovered profiles in their Stasi records that had denied them further education or employment opportunities, or damaged trusted relationships.

We need to pay closer attention to the harm today’s surveillance in schools is doing and will do to children’s future selves and to society. Children urgently need to be heard, and to have meaningful support for their digital rights in practical ways. We need not only improvement, but a radical rethink of surveillance policies in schools. We need to open up providers and outcomes to independent oversight. We need to tear down the Prevent duty.

A digital rights' respecting environment in education might not be built for our children in a day, but it must not take another 30 years.

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