China v. US: Privacy Norms For Schools

A few months ago I wondered:

Are China and USA are very culturally different (when it comes to privacy around tech), or if they’re just a few years ahead of us in accepting things?

Maybe it’s the latter.

A US school district just deployed facial recognition software. 

I first read about this in China back in 2018:

A Chinese school has installed facial recognition technology to monitor how attentive students are in class.

Every movement of pupils at Hangzhou Number 11 High School in eastern China is watched by three cameras positioned above the blackboard.

The “smart classroom behaviour management system,” or “smart eye”, is the latest highly-intrusive surveillance equipment to be rolled out in China, where leaders have rushed to use the latest technology to monitor the wider population.

The system has been installed in one classroom, but will be deployed across the school by the summer, headmaster Ni Ziyuan said.

Some students are already changing their behaviour due to the increased monitoring.

“Previously when I had classes that I didn’t like very much, I would be lazy and maybe take naps on the desk, or flick through other textbooks,” one student told Hangzhou.com, a news website run by the central government.

“But I don’t dare be distracted after the cameras were installed in the classrooms. It’s like a pair of mystery eyes are constantly watching me.”

Just last week in the USA:

A battle over facial recognition is brewing in upstate New York, where earlier this month Lockport Schools became one of the first US school districts to turn on the controversial technology in all of the K-12 buildings that serve about 5,000 students. There, the district’s deployment of the tech has ignited a squabble between parents, school board members, state education officials, and privacy advocates over facial recognition’s risks and cost-effectiveness. Now a state assembly member plans to double down on a proposed bill that would put a moratorium on the tech in New York state schools.

The district’s plans, and the confusion it’s spurred, have made Lockport a test case for how facial recognition will be used in schools, and for how government officials will respond to mounting criticisms that the tech violates student privacy, is plagued by inaccurate results, and isn’t worth its high price tag.

Proponents of the tech argue that it keeps people safe by automatically tracking who is where and when. In school districts, including Lockport, facial recognition is primarily being used to enforce campus safety watchlists, by sending alerts when someone dangerous — or otherwise unwanted — shows up in a camera feed.

But critics say facial recognition could be used to surveil students and note that it builds up databases of sensitive information about peoples’ faces, which schools may not be prepared to keep secure. They also highlight that facial recognition is known to be less accurate on people of color, and that the technology could ultimately exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline.

In Lockport, concerns have centered on whether students’ photos will be added to the database. After a back-and-forth with the state education department, the school district released a privacy policy stating that the watchlist would not include its students under any circumstances and clarified that the database would only include non-students, like those who are sex offenders or who are banned by court order, and “[a]nyone believed to pose a threat based on credible information.” (The system also includes an AI-powered gun detection tool.)

I will be interested to see if the proposed bill to ban such tools passes in NY State.

My own opinion is that the marginal increase in safety is so ephemeral it is not worth the loss of privacy.

China, too, is having that debate.

Privacy advocates in the USA would be well-advised to publicize introduction of such technology in Chinese schools, then pose the question in Op-Eds here, as a way to start the debate even before a school district buys the technology, as in Lockport.

Get a head start.