Lessons in the panopticon: school fits toilets with CCTV

Astley Sports College in Dukinfield has installed £20,000 worth of CCTV cameras to monitor pupils. Even when they’re in the toilets.

The Manchester Evening News (via The ARCH blog) reports that the school has a bullying problem, and Deputy Head Ian Gilbert sees round-the-clock surveillance as the solution:

“[The cameras] have definitely proved their worth because pupils know they’re being watched 24 hours a day.”

He added: “To shut your eyes to technology just doesn’t make sense. Would we stop using electronic registers or texting parents? The technology is there so use it to your benefit.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Gilbert doesn’t understand that security is a trade-off. His school has sacrificed its pupils’ right to privacy for a security product that may or may not be effective (bullying is a mobile problem that takes many forms).

The school is indeed using technology for its own benefit, but it’s oblivious to the harm it could be causing by so doing. This is because the consequences of the abolition of pupil privacy are an externality to the managers of Astley Sports College. They’re not affected by them so they don’t consider them important.

So if not the college, who will bear the consequences of this selfishness?

We all will.

This school is teaching children that being watched is a normal part of life. It’s bringing up a generation to believe that the authorities have a right to access their personal life.

If kids grow up thinking this level of intrusion is OK, they won’t be properly equipped to challenge other abuses of power. There will be more people who who believe the myth “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. People like Mr. Gilbert. Our society will start to lose the ability to strike balances between the delicate issues of privacy and technology, inconvenience and security, freedom and control. Slowly but surely, society will shift from a free and open culture to one of authoritarianism and suspicion, to the benefit of those in power and the detriment of everyone else.

If a school has a bullying problem, there are far less insidious ways it could spend £20,000 on solving it. How about engaging with, supporting and educating pupils rather than creating a panopticon to control their behaviour through fear?

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