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Smart IDs on students: the good, the bad and the ugly

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on October 09, 2019 Published on October 09, 2019

For starters, several schools now use ‘smart’ technologies to track students. They include wearable RFID cards, biometric attendance apparatuses -Representative Image

Several schools in India have introduced ‘smart’ attendance systems to keep a tab on students. Here’s what you should know about them

“Always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed – no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres in your skull.” That’s George Orwell in 1984.

Orwell’s dystopian epic eerily predicted how the world would succumb happily to authoritarianism and surveillance-powered governance practices. Clearly he wasn’t talking to a school-going child in India or elsewhere. But this could ring true to a school-going child in India, given the surveillance obsession of parents and teachers in the country.

For starters, several schools now use ‘smart’ technologies to track students. They include wearable RFID cards, biometric attendance apparatuses, high-definition closed-circuit television cameras that decorate not only the corridors of schools, but also classrooms, canteens, school buses and even toilets (remember the controversial suggestions from Karnataka police to install CCTVs even in school toilets?).

Pros and cons

True, parents and teachers have many reasons today to worry about the safety of their children and they are bound to believe that smart tracking systems can help them keep tabs their wards. Surveillance is, therefore, seen as the best bet for their safety.

Only, this is not always true. And there are many risks in subjecting children to smart tracking technologies (technical surveillance as experts put it). The risks vary from physical to mental and social to political realms. Take RFID; radio-frequency tags are quite popular in the logistics and livestock industries. It helps keep track of goods, vehicles and cattle. In the US alone, RFID for cattle and food is a $5 billion-plus business. Globally, the RFID market has crossed $11 billion, according to consultancy IDTechEx. That said, use of RFID on children are not very popular, though not too rare.

The trend started nearly a decade ago. A 2012 report in tech magazine Wired revealed that several US schools started implanting RFID devices on students’ ID cards to monitor their movements on school premises. The report said the trend started in 2010 at a government-funded school in Richmond, California.

In fact, in 2005, a similar plan was called off in an elementary school in California. The parents felt their children would become “guinea pigs” if they start wearing such tags that collected data of their movement. “I’m not willing for anybody to track me and I don't think my children should be tracked, either,” a parent was quoted in Wired.

Indian scenario

In India, though, RFIDs for students are a very recent phenomenon. It is learnt that a few schools in Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi have already distributed RFID cards to their students. The administrations genuinely believe this eases the load off their chest as such automated systems would track the movements of children in school, ensuring better participation and keeping parents in the loop about the movements of their offspring. This is a win-win for all, as a teacher put it.

Not exactly for the children. First off, there is hardly a solid link between crime deterrence and surveillance. In most cases, it helps in post-crime probes, not exactly in preventing crimes. Next, there is the issue of consent. Evidently, the children are not a party to the decisions to make them objects of “datafication”, which means they are forced to use devices that collect data on their movements, just like mobile applications and the so-called Internet of Toys and Things (basically means web-connected equipment such as fridges, toys and cars). Already the way mobile apps collect and commercialise data on children without their consent is fodder for heated public debate across the globe.

Downsides

Smart attendance systems such as RFIDs should also have raised such concerns. But in India, especially, parents seem to look at the “brighter” side of the issue and ignore the concerns around datafication of children without their consent. And that’s why they must read a report that was released last November by Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner in England.

Titled ‘Who Knows What About Me’, the report looks into how big tech (basically big technology companies such as Google, Amazon or Facebook) collect data on children and the dangers that could trigger – from letting companies groom children the wrong way to paedophiles and parties with vested interests accessing such data to prey on vulnerable children. Also, agencies such as Big Brother Watch have said RFIDs could pose some potential health risks to some children.

Today, an RFID or a biometric system may seem simple and useful. But soon (and it is happening already in many places), these devices will start collecting a lot more than they are supposed to and in all likelihood the children (future customers they are) can become pools of lucrative data.

Further, and the most important thing according to many psychologists and sociologists, is that such smart attendance systems – from RFIDs to biometrics and apps-enabled trackers – are grooming children in such a way that they normalise the idea of surveillance and start believing privacy is just a chimera or an obsolete idea.

In other words, we are preparing them, or customising rather, for an Orwellian world where Big Brother is always watching and, sadly, they don’t find it uncomfortable. That doesn’t augur well for the citizens of the future and the world they are going to build.

Published on October 09, 2019
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