Youth Advisory Group – Surveillance in Schools

Thursday 27th July, 2017

In early 2017, the Youth Advisory Group (YAG) for the Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection (CPDP) met to discuss the role of surveillance, tracking and analytics in schools and universities, and what this means for student privacy. Tushar Goyal, a YAG member, wrote this piece following the group discussion. The following is a summary of the views and opinions of the YAG members, and does not represent the official view of CPDP.

Wi-Fi tracking of students

Contemporary Australian society is increasingly reliant on new technology. Whether it be in schools to keep students safe, or in workplaces for developmental reasons, such circumstances implore us to question the safety and security of the data we give to organisations every day. In early 2017 it was revealed that some Victorian universities have been Wi-Fi tracking their students in order to monitor the use of spaces and improve the experience of students. However, students have been significantly concerned with the practice and wish to know how the data and their privacy is being protected. Whilst these institutions claim that the data received is anonymous, the Youth Advisory Group decided to further discuss this issue to identify the appropriateness of their actions.

Wi-Fi tracking is no new concept. Large corporations such as Google, Apple and Uber use it frequently as a means of relaying traffic information and improving customer experiences. Why, then, is a similar practice performed by univerisities deemed controversial?

Firstly, multinational mega-corporations have various methods of protecting the data they receive. However, it would be difficult for a university in Australia to uphold the same security protections. Locations of users is an extremely sensitive form of data, which should be adequately protected, and the universities must prove that they have proper safety guidelines in place before collecting any information from students. They should explain who has access to what data and the ways it will be used by either the university or third parties.

Additionally, universities should have clearly informed students about this project rather than running it behind the scenes. Informed consent helps build trust between the information giver and receiver. By hiding such practices in “Terms & Conditions” pages or other legal contracts in between the jargon, universities will inevitably attract suspicion.

Wi-Fi tracking is not uncommon in the 21st century. After all, the universities have implemented this program to enhance the experience and lifestyle of students. Unfortunately, failure to seek proper consent made their act look more sinister than it really is. Instead, universities should clearly communicate projects in a comprehensible and understanding manner to avoid contention and conflict in the future.

Introduction of school surveillance in Australia

Over the past few years, CCTV cameras and microphones have helped provide invaluable evidence during investigations as well as create a sense of safety in public locations. In fact, the Australian Principals Federation believes installing CCTV cameras in all foyers of state schools can help combat bullying, obesity, smoking and truancy. Many staff claim the cameras could be “guardians of truth” whilst others claim they have no place in school grounds. With such a contentious issue at hand, the Youth Advisory Group decided to analyse how effective we believe CCTV cameras and microphones could be in Australian schools.

Without doubt, CCTV cameras have in the past captured many instances of bullying and unlawful behaviour. In fact, many teachers believe that their installation can also assist in protecting them from wrongful accusations of misconduct. Some state schools already claim that having CCTV footage in locker bays, outside change rooms and within the library have helped catch perpetrators as well as reduce theft within school grounds.

In contrast, installing CCTV cameras absolutely everywhere around schools can be more detrimental than beneficial. Some school staff members wish to see cameras fitted even in toilets, despite this potentially breaching Victoria’s Surveillance Devices Act. Moreover, they want security cameras in every classroom, foyer, corridor and playground to capture every student’s precise activities. Children, even at a young age, still have a right to privacy. Such levels of monitoring in any public place should be deemed inappropriate and unnecessary, and state schools are no exception to this.

In fact, when cameras are “over-installed”, they start disseminating a negative impact on the growth and wellbeing of developing children. As writer Emmeline Taylor describes in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘CCTVs can undermine privacy, erode trust, have a “chilling effect” on creativity, and create an atmosphere of suspicion’.1 School is meant to be a safe and professional place where students should feel comfortable. In such a setting, independence, freedom and the ability to retain a level of privacy must be granted to create a welcoming environment for students.

Lastly, trust between students and teachers promotes educational growth. To achieve this, students should feel free to express their concerns and thoughts whilst knowing their conversation will remain confidential. However, CCTV cameras and microphones in the classroom will create a barrier between educators and students, deterring children from discussing personal matters with their teachers.

Although CCTV cameras show some promise of eliminating bullying, delinquent behaviour and truancy from state schools, their use must be limited to ensure that they do not do more harm than good.

1 Emmeline Taylor, ‘School surveillance puts trust at risk’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 October 2013.