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
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.