US school spies on kids at school… and at home

There’s a really disturbing story on Boingboing concerning a US school in a wealthy suburb that issued laptops to students whose webcams could be covertly switched on by school administrators, wherever the kids were. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the school saw nothing wrong in using these cameras to spy on kids at home, and even issuing a disciplinary notice to one child who was apparently deemed to be guilty of ‘improper behaviour.’ Not surprisingly the school is now subject to a class action lawsuit.

School surveillance is a particularly under-studied issue, although recently, there has been the excellent new book edited by Torin Monahan and there will be a double issue of Surveillance & Society on surveillance and children coming out in March / April. It seems that because children either do not have adult rights (or their rights are not seen as important in the same way), states, school authorities and individual Heads and Administrators have all taken the opportunity to experiment with ever more  intrusive surveillance measures. Many of these were once justified with reference to concerns over truancy and attendance, or security and violence (the metal detectors in many urban US high schools, for example), and then there was health (used to justify the automated monitoring of what kids ate at meal times). But increasingly more petty and market-based issues have emerged: corporate data-collection and compliance with minor rules and regulations. All seemingly without any regard for the developing sense of autonomy, privacy or sociality of children.

Of course, the increasing use of surveillance in schools also serves an educative function in a surveillance society: essentially it indoctrinates children as to what is the ‘new normal’, what should be their expectations of privacy (and other rights) in a world increasingly organised on the principles of surveillance. However it’s good to see the lawsuit in this case and that some things still have the power to raise people from their apathy. But this is a school in a wealthy area with educated parents who understand and have access to the law – what would be the outcome in a school in a marginalized area?

School Surveillance

No-one could have failed to notice the gradual infiltration of security and surveillance technologies and practices into schools throughout the industrialised word. Of course, schools have always been sorting mechanisms (as Foucault pointed out), but the use of high-tech scanning systems at entrances, cameras in classrooms, RFID for library books and even meals, point to not just a justifiable concern with the safety of kids (and staff) but a combination of commercial pressure and paranoia.

My friend and colleague, Torin Monahan from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, has a new edited collection out on this very topic with Rodolfo Torres. Schools under Surveillance has a range of contributors, most of whom it is good to see are not the usual Surveillance Studies suspects. His local paper, The Tennessean did a story on the book, which notes Torin, has generated “a lot of crazy blowback” from bloggers in particular School surveillance is a sensitive topic which needs careful consideration, and it’s a shame some people can’t discuss these issues without such stupidity.

Japan to introduce resident-monitored CCTV

One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the way in which the state has attempted to adapt Japan’s traditional culture of responsibilized local community organisations (chounaikai) for the new surveillance society (kanshi shakai, in Japanese). Cynics may well argue that what is called here bohan machizukuri (or community safety development – or sometimes the similar anzen anshin machizukuri) is simply a way in which the government can attempt to save money whilst pretending to be tough on what is always claimed to be a worsening crime rate. It is also true to say that this is also a further perversion of the machizukuri (bottom-up community development) idea that came out of local environmental movements of the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the Japan Times reported that the Keisatsuchou (National Police Agency or NPA) appears to be pushing forward with plans to extend its rather small number of CCTV cameras* into 15 residential areas starting January 2010 (two of which, Higashiyamato and Musashimurayama, are suburbs of Tokyo, and I’ll be visiting these whilst I am here) at the cost of 597 Million Yen (around £3.85 Million or $6.3 Million US). There’s always an underlying fear that is played on when such systems are installed, and in this case it is a classic: the threat to children. The small camera systems(around 25 cameras in size) will be installed on streets that are commonly used by kids going to and from school.

The fact that the schemes are focused on child safety would certainly be one of the reasons why the use of local volunteer committees to watch the cameras and manage the data from local civic facilities like community centres, has been put forward. It could also be in response to opposition from some local residents to what they see as the imposition of unwanted state invasion of their privacy, although according to the Japan Times, the police say it “will help residents to secure safety by themselves.” Their big problem is that there do not appear to be many volunteers yet!

There are many questions here. One mystery is that in Japan most school runs already have several, often elderly, volunteers who look out for children in person,in a more genuinely machizukuri form of bohan machizukuri so why the more expensive cameras? Another massive question is the one around privacy and data protection. How will volunteers be expected to act as official data controllers, especially in such a sensitive area as surveillance of children in public space? Finally, what will the effect be on trust and community relations to have one set of people in the community monitoring others? How will they be held accountable?

These, and many other questions will be just some of the things occupying my time here for the next two months…

*There are just 363 NPA cameras in Japan, however there are more owned by local municipal authorities, particularly in Tokyo, and thousands more operated by private companies and shoutenkai (shopkeepers’ associations).

Contact Point goes live

The controversial new central database of all children in the UK has gone live today for the North-west of England, and will gradually be rolled out across the UK. The £224M ‘Contact Point’, one of the main planks of the ‘Every Child Matters’ initiative, will be accessible to around 390, 000 police, social workers and other relevant professionals. It is mainly being promoted as a time-saving initiative, allowing quicker and more informed intervention in the case of vulnerable children, which we all hope it does, although this of course depends on the correct information being on the database in the first place. In addition, as the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust review, Database State, rated the system as ‘red’ for danger in terms of privacy:

“because of the privacy concerns and the legal issues with maintaining sensitive data with no effective opt-out, and because the security is inadequate (having been designed as an afterthought), and because it provides a mechanism for registering all children that complements the National Identity Register.”

In Morro dos Prazeres: little ants changing the anthill?

One of our most interesting visits last week was to the favela of Morro dos Prazeres, north-west of Santa Teresa. Prazeres has one of the most astonishing views of Rio of any neighbourhood, with an almost 360 degree panorama of the city, it’s perspective to the south only interupted by the statue of Christ the Redeemer, which is hardly a bad view in itself! You might think that the last thing that favelados would care about was the view but they are well aware of the beauty of their location – the assumption that the poor an desperate would not care about such things is a rather patronising misconception. Elisa, the leader of the community association, at least, seems most proud of this asset and says that like many people she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else even if she won the lottery!

But Prazeres does have serious problems. For a start, it is a ‘hot’ favela, occupied by drug traffickers, who control ‘law and order’ in the place. There is therefore no ongoing police presence, although as with many such communities, the community association does have a relationship of sorts with local military police commanders through organised coffee mornings at which problems are discussed. Luckily, despite or because of the almost complete control of a particular gang which is well integrated into the community (i.e.: they are relatives of the more law-abiding members), there are not many problems with violence and the police, ‘thank God’ (says Elisa), have not raided the favela recently, as they have many others.

In fact, as we were visiting Prazeres, as the taxi driver rather anxiously pointed out as he dropped us a safe distance away, BOPE (military police special operations) were ‘invading’ two other favelas next to it, the very hot Morro de Correoa, and Sao Carlos. The operations left eight dead, and we think what we had assumed initially were fireworks was probably the sound of small arms fire in the Sao Carlos operation. However, when we asked a PM at a nearby police post whether Prazeres was safe to enter, he seemed rather blase and relaxed about the whole thing…

Elisa was another very impressive woman. In the absence of men – who, in the favelas are in many cases, either involved in the gangs, working outside, or unemployed and alcoholic – it seems that a whole generation of strong, courageous women has emerged to try to develop their communities from the bottom up. In the past they have benefited from various attempts by previous mayors to provide development for the favelas. Unlike some places, Prazeres does not have a school built during the regimes of populist left-wing Governor, Leonel Brizola (who seems to be fondly recalled in by almost all those we have talked to in the poorer communities). However there was a lot of intervention as part of the Favela Bairro (Favela Community) program of former Mayor, Cesar Maia, and it is this normalisation or the favelas through infrastructure, social and economic development, education, health and social services that Elisa said are the only long-term solution to the problems of Prazeres. The creche in particular is a source of continual delight to her, and her face lit up whenever it is mentioned.

With social development and education, Elisa argued, eventually the ‘cold’ and uncaring gangs will recruit fewer kids, and they will wither slowly away. Confrontation however, only strengthens them by driving more young people to support the ‘insider’ traffickers against the ‘outsider’ police. They must, she said, work like little ants, with lots of small efforts adding up together to long-term success… then perhaps the anthill of Prazeres will function as a normal community.