Want to make a fast buck? UK children’s personal data up for sale, everywhere

The campaign group Big Brother Watch discovered that over 200 UK schools have CCTV cameras in toilets and changing rooms.

Did you know that people regularly spy on our children, for profit? This blog post discusses the role of children’s data in UK society, and the dangers that excessive processing of this data presents to society as a whole. Using children’s personal data goes back a long way, particularly when it comes to the idea of recording aspects of children’s physical form, their birth dates, who their parents are and their addresses. The first recorded use of children’s biometric data being collected was in the 14th century, when the explorer and historian Joao de Barros reported that Chinese merchants were stamping children’s palm prints and footprints on paper with ink in order to distinguish amongst individuals, a technique still used today in some UK maternity units. The phenomenon is not new.

What is worrying is that it has rapidly increased in intensity over the last 15-20 years, particularly in the UK. Since the introduction of the UK’s Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC) in 1998[i], increasing amounts of personal data have been collected by schools and local authorities in relation to pupils and schooling processes. Fine, you might think. Tracking children through their school careers has a certain logic to it. But thanks to pressures from the growing child protection industry and IT industry, who have a lot to gain by invoking a mood of national panic, the pace of collection and processing has increased substantially in recent years. This has happened particularly since the introduction of the Every Child Matters initiative in 2003, and culminated in the (now abandoned) development of ContactPoint, a Big Brother-ish  large-scale population surveillance database for children created under the UK Children’s Act 2004. It brought together a significant amount of data on individually identifiable children, including health, education and social welfare information.  This is the database that MPs, VIPs and celebrities were refusing to have their children included in, if you remember. As if this wasn’t enough, there was also a drive to develop a similarly large-scale database of adults who come into contact with children via the Independent Safeguarding Authority, a recently established quasi-Governmental organisation (also abandoned immediately after the 2010 election, much to my relief).

In addition to these statutory database-led forms of surveillance, many schools that want to appear modern and funky also use a range of additional optional technologies, usually biometric, to track the physical location of school pupils and their teachers, as well as their interactions with school systems, such as attendance registers, libraries and dining halls. If you are interested in how this works in practice, this link will take you to Martha Payne’s ‘ Never Seconds’ school dinner blog, where the process is described in context by one child attending a small secondary school. http://neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/fingerprinted-for-lunch.html

These systems are easily sold to schools, offering benefits ranging from reduced administration costs, to sci-fi attractiveness to pupils, although the accuracy of such systems has been contested, suggesting it is not quite as effective as a dinner lady ticking a child she knows by sight off a list. In any school of 1000 children, there will be something like 6-12 whose fingerprints are sufficiently similar to cause them regular and perpetual problems with the technology. So we still need dinner ladies to sort out the resultant chaos, if children are to get their lunch.

For the record, neither I not the Department for Education know exactly how widespread adoption of biometric technologies in schools is, but I think it might approach a figure of 2000 secondary schools in the UK, representing 40% of the total, as well as 2000 primary schools, representing 10% of the total, based on manufacturers’ figures. Yes, that’s 2000 primary schools fingerprinting children from the age of 4.

Bentham’s Panopticon – prisoners can be observed from the watch tower at any time of the day or night, thanks to permanent illumination.

There is more. Just as footprints were being used to identify children in China more than five hundred years ago, the use of slightly unnerving surveillance technologies in schools should not be seen as a recent development in the UK either, as this has been present at least since the 19th century, with the aim being to ensure pupils’ self-regulation, via what sociologists call the ‘panoptic gaze’ (the Panopticon being a particularly chilling method of housing and controlling prisoners developed in the 19th century, in which they were potentially on view all the time). In terms of schooling, this is a social situation in which pupils can never be quite sure when and how they might be the subjects of surveillance, and therefore are more likely to adopt compliant behaviour patterns. In the Victorian classroom, this might have been achieved through seating children in rows, with a teacher on a raised platform at the front, for example, and there may have been a large window opening onto a corridor to allow headmasters to patrol their schools, keeping a watchful eye on both pupils and teachers as they did so. Anyone who didn’t comply, or look like they were complying, rapidly faced a caning. However these days we use extensive CCTV of pupils as well as biometric registration, and we are seeing the beginning of what some have termed a ‘post-panoptic era’, in which pupils bodies – fingerprints and faces – act as a substitute for this form of internal regulation, with the body and its genetic characteristics representing an individual’s identity within a society that seeks to control it. Big Brother indeed.

Possibly as a consequence of this, there has been significant concern about the possibility of misuse of this data, particularly when linked with data from existing databases, as well as what has been termed ‘function creep’ whereby data collected for one purpose are used for another. Increasingly technologies are being developed to be able to match fragments of biometric data identify an individual across systems (using techniques such as “fingerprint mosaicing”, which makes the potential for data sharing of biometric data even more concerning. It’s not something you really want in the public domain, believe me, as once it is out there, you can’t reset it or get it back. Yet even though this is an illogical technological medium for children, as their bodies change so rapidly such systems are at their most unreliable, children are subjected to them more frequently than adults might be. This is because they are seen as being vulnerable, needing more supervision than adults, and their rights to privacy are seen as less significant – an example of the ‘otherness’ of children. They are a social group that we do what we like to, because they have little if any voice.

Todholm Primary School in Scotland have gone beyond fingerprinting of pupils in the school dining room, and installed palm vein readers instead for added security.

Taking an overview, it is clear that a great deal of monitoring of individuals is taking place in the UK in an educational context, of both adults and children, with many individuals also being subject to biometric surveillance. The use of different forms of surveillance in this way has become a key element of day to day life for many who work in schools, as well as those who attend them. Yet despite the extent of surveillance taking place in UK schools, research into the effect that this type of monitoring might have on pupils and teachers is in its infancy, even though this is a known problem for the field of surveillance studies. Consequently we are now in a position in the UK where schoolchildren are routinely habituated to excessive data capture and low level use of biometrics. This is carried out without reflection upon the potential long term harm to the individual of surrendering his or her physical characteristics, or the potential harm to a society as a whole that accepts excessive data capture in exchange for little more than convenience. Earlier research carried out by Andy Phippen at the University of Plymouth shows that from both technical and policy perspectives, schools are ill prepared to have the necessary infrastructure and countermeasures in place to ensure they can manage biometric data effectively. In addition to this, the population is developing subsequent generations of teachers who have a very relaxed attitude toward the sharing of their own information and, in some cases, flagrant disregard for the privacy of others. Just think of all the Facebook scandals that have taken place involving teachers, and you have an idea of quite how reckless teachers can be when dealing with personal data.

At the time of writing there is increasing Government involvement related to biometrics in schools. The UK Department for Education has released a consultation on guidelines for schools on their use of biometric data (for example adherence to the Data Protection Act[ii]). In addition, the Protection of Freedoms Act[iii]states that the collection of biometrics in schools requires explicit parental consent, and has just reached the statute books. However, our data from earlier studies would suggest that the public at large are not aware of the potential social risks in the use of such data, as existing legal frameworks for their protection are not being used, and therefore additional regulatory structures for consent do not necessarily mean safer (and necessary?) use of biometric data. We have shown that schools do not have the necessary policy and practice in place to be able to effectively manage such sensitive data and ensure effective protection. There is a need to better understand the motivations for and impact of using biometrics in such ways, combined with greater awareness and education among the public at large so children, parents, staff and governors can all make informed decisions on the necessity to use biometrics in their schools and ensure the social risks in their use can be minimised.

There is a broader question about the UK’s position in relation to high levels of surveillance and monitoring of children in school. We are badly out of step with the wider European picture, being more in line with contemporary trends in the United States. This disconnect with the rest of Europe does not seem to be of particular concern to the British Government, surprisingly enough. As a consequence of this, an EU Working Party has addressed the issue of such monitoring on several occasions, particularly with reference to the use of biometric data in the context of children attending school. The Working Party has (rightly, in my view) asked repeatedly for stringent adherence to the data protection principles set out in the relevant EU Directive. Yet the UK appears to be doing little of substance to address the issue.

With this in mind, we are planning new research that explores the social, economic and political impacts of new administrative technologies on contemporary schools and their pupils, comparing and contrasting the UK situation to that of a range of other representative countries. We want to provide a baseline of existing practice, by drawing on current studies such as the 360 Degree Safe schools self-review data and the Foundation for Information Policy Research work on safety and privacy in children’s databases across Europe. We will also be carrying out surveys, interviews and focus groups on contemporary attitudes towards school based population surveillance. If we manage to win funding, this data, along with the various international comparisons, will be used to develop best practice guidelines suitable for wider EU application.


[i] Since 2007 known as the School Census, with data now collected three times a year. These data form the National Pupil Database and are used as the basis of the Pupils and their Characteristics annual reports published by the Department for Education.

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4 thoughts on “Want to make a fast buck? UK children’s personal data up for sale, everywhere”

  1. The moment of hope I got from “this is an illogical technological medium for children, as their bodies change so rapidly such systems are at their most unreliable” was chilled when I got to “schoolchildren are routinely habituated to excessive data capture and low level use of biometrics. This is carried out without reflection upon the potential long term harm to the individual of surrendering his or her physical characteristics, or the potential harm to a society as a whole that accepts excessive data capture in exchange for little more than convenience”.

    Is there any move in the curriculum to teach data protection, alongside the discussions which are meant to me taking place about indiscretions on Facebook and cyber-bullying?

  2. I think that’s the point of our research – it’s a pretty serious issue, but the curriculum has not really kept up to date with developments, having more of a post-1988 feel for data collection and storage.It needs to be revamped for a 21st century in which data, and the equipment and software to collect and process data, are big business. Otherwise we are stumbling blindly into a world where we’ll all have to brandish ID for the most miniscule of purposes, even though this means people are sometimes deprived of their entitlements.

    1. Maybe feminism offers a starting point: all the thinking about the “tyranny of the gaze”

      1. Emmeline Taylor, in her research into CCTV in schools points out that adolescent girls get particularly upset by close observation, particularly in cloakrooms and changing areas, because, as one puts it, “There is nowhere you can go to have a cry”. In our world, visible manifestations of emotions, female dress malfunctions, and in the case of naked scanners in airports, female breasts are all expected to be on display for the purposes of ‘security’. Whose security? Whose decision was this? Usually the decision is commercial – someone invents something, they have to find a market, and schools (and to an extent, airports and associated government ministers) are sitting ducks for the marketing pitch. Like so many policies, they compromise females a lot more than males. Yet this is rarely, if ever, considered.

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