The dystopian tech that awaits chil­dren go­ing back to school

Some head teach­ers plan to use ther­mal cam­eras, while over­seas students are be­ing forced into track­ing apps, finds Hasan Chowdhury

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce -

From ther­mal imag­ing cam­eras and makeshift apps to ro­bots and hu­man con­tact-trac­ing ef­forts, schools around the world are rac­ing to in­stall new rules and sys­tems they be­lieve will keep students and staff safe while pre­vent­ing the spread of Covid-19.

While the de­bate over whether or not chil­dren should wear masks has raged in re­cent days, some schools have started tak­ing mat­ters into their own hands by in­stalling far more so­phis­ti­cated tech­nol­ogy to beat the virus.

In the UK, some schools are rolling out ther­mal cam­eras that scan pupils at the en­trance for a raised tem­per­a­ture. More dystopian in­ven­tions are be­ing de­ployed over­seas, in­clud­ing apps that track stu­dent move­ments.

For mil­lions of pupils it is back to school, but not as they knew it. In many class­rooms and cor­ri­dors they will for the first time find them­selves hav­ing to adapt to mea­sures and re­stric­tions aimed at keep­ing them safe.

El­liot Jones, re­searcher at the Ada Lovelace In­sti­tute, be­lieves the use of any sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies will need to “demon­strate a clear pub­lic health ben­e­fit”. That is par­tic­u­larly the case as chil­dren can­not “opt-out” of school­ing, mak­ing it vi­tal ap­pro­pri­ate kit is used.

“If these tech­nolo­gies are be­ing hur­riedly de­ployed at a school-byschool level with no clear jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of ne­ces­sity, over­sight or data pro­tec­tion im­pact as­sess­ment, that would be a cause for con­cern,” he says.

Al­ready, though, the ex­tent to which ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions are will­ing to go to get bod­ies through doors has raised con­cerns.

In the US, a lib­eral arts col­lege in Michi­gan came un­der fire last week af­ter it emerged that students would be re­quired to down­load a con­tact trac­ing app, called Aura, which will track the lo­ca­tions of its al­most 1,500 students in real-time.

“There’s a line but that’s way over the line,” says Prof Alan Wood­ward, a cy­ber se­cu­rity ex­pert at Sur­rey Uni­ver­sity. “The big ques­tion then is what are you go­ing to do with that data.”

Not only was the app able to track stu­dent move­ments, it would re­port if a stu­dent left the col­lege cam­pus without per­mis­sion, sup­pos­edly in­creas­ing the risk they could bring coro­n­avirus on to the site, and re­voke their ac­cess to build­ings and their stu­dent ID au­to­mat­i­cally. If students turned off lo­ca­tion track­ing on their phones, they could even be sus­pended.

Wood­ward adds that such lo­ca­tion track­ing is a ma­jor over­step and was un­likely to yield any use­ful data about cases. “Say­ing you know the phys­i­cal lo­ca­tion of Johnny and Timmy and Fred­die ev­ery sec­ond of the day doesn’t tell you any­thing,” he says. The app was sim­ply gath­er­ing un­nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion about move­ments that do not lead to close con­tact or so­cial in­ter­ac­tions within one to two me­tres, in­vad­ing a users pri­vacy for no good rea­son.

Some UK in­sti­tu­tions are ex­plor­ing other con­tact-trac­ing so­lu­tions to keep watch over their students.

In June, Up­ping­ham School, a pri­vate school charg­ing £12,906 per term for its board­ing students whose alumni in­clude Stephen Fry, un­veiled a test and trace sys­tem in an ef­fort to re­turn students back to the class­room for the start of the new aca­demic year.

De­tails of the sys­tem, which haven’t been fully dis­closed, would see in­di­vid­ual board­ing house wings face iso­la­tion if peo­ple test pos­i­tive for the virus. The in­tro­duc­tion of an app for con­tact trac­ing at any school would face the more strin­gent hur­dles of data

‘There’s a line but that’s way over the line. The big ques­tion then is what are you go­ing to do with that data’

Say­ing you know the phys­i­cal lo­ca­tion of Johnny and Timmy and Fred­die ev­ery sec­ond of the day doesn’t tell you any­thing’

pro­tec­tion reg­u­la­tion and GDPR across Europe. In China, mean­while, a range of tech­nolo­gies have been in­tro­duced that hint at what schools re­ally think mat­ters. On the more harm­less side has been the in­tro­duc­tion of ro­bots, such as one in­tro­duced at a nurs­ery in Hangzhou, which help students wash their hands in the morn­ing.

But some schools are keen to go a step fur­ther, which is why they have started to in­stall ther­mal imag­ing cam­eras. One school has in­tro­duced an in­frared screen­ing sys­tem to de­tect the body tem­per­a­ture of students.

UK schools are fol­low­ing suit. One De­gree Acad­emy, a school for pri­mary stage students in En­field, in­stalled a ther­mal cam­era in May to read the tem­per­a­ture of its students and en­sure they aren’t show­ing symp­toms of coro­n­avirus.

For Dar­ren Wray, chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer at soft­ware firm Guardum, there are some con­cerns around their wide­spread use. “Ther­mal imag­ing cam­eras dif­fer from your nor­mal se­cu­rity cam­era but they can cap­ture enough in­for­ma­tion to po­ten­tially iden­tify peo­ple.”

He sug­gests that the pe­riod in which any data col­lected from ther­mal imag­ing cam­eras should be min­imised, and any schools hold­ing the data for a pe­riod be­yond two weeks, the max­i­mum in­cu­ba­tion pe­riod for in­di­vid­u­als dis­play­ing symp­toms, should as­sess why.

As Jones points out, the ex­tent to which tech­nol­ogy could be rolled out in Bri­tain’s schools may be lim­ited as pub­lic trust in gov­ern­ment use of tech­nol­ogy has been “se­verely hit”, and as­sess­ment of the trust­wor­thi­ness of such tech­nolo­gies would need in­de­pen­dent re­view­ers and eval­u­a­tors.

Its most re­cent scan­dal around the A-level grad­ing al­go­rithm led to the res­ig­na­tion of Sally Collier, the chief of Bri­tain’s exam reg­u­la­tor, and a series of hic­cups with a na­tional con­tact trac­ing app have all but de­stroyed con­fi­dence in its abil­ity to de­liver se­cure tech­nol­ogy. It is un­likely to earn the Gov­ern­ment a vote of con­fi­dence to over­see such tech­nol­ogy.

The Gov­ern­ment has just about made a de­ci­sion on masks in schools. The de­ci­sion to in­tro­duce tech­nol­ogy may well be out of its hands.

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