The steady creep of closed circuit television into our lives is raising big questions about privacy.
A seven-year-old girl walks through a heavy wrought-iron gate and the microchip implanted in her jacket conducts an electronic conversation with a hidden receiver. She arrives at a door and places her index finger on one scanner as another scrutinises the iris of her right eye.
As she navigates through the corridors, a line of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras track her progress. They will follow her constantly, even when she enters the bathroom.
The girl is not in a state-of-the-art government building or a high-security laboratory. She is at school.
This Big Brother-like scenario might sound like a scene from the future, but it’s already happening every day in the UK. After criminals, school children are the most highly monitored group. And Australia is following in the mother country’s footsteps.
“The level of surveillance that some pupils are subjected to on a daily basis rivals that of international airports and prisons,” says Dr Emmeline Taylor of the ANU School of Sociology, part of the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences.
When Taylor completed her PhD in 2009, around 85 per cent of UK schools had some level of CCTV coverage and one in seven pupils had been fingerprinted at school. These statistics are just estimates, as no official records were kept and parental knowledge and consent were not legally required.
“In the late nineties, the UK was quite aggressively implementing CCTV in most of its city centres, a policy that was receiving a lot of media attention,” says Taylor.
“At the same time, schools were introducing cameras in the classrooms, in the changing rooms, in the pupils’ toilets, and yet there was no public discussion whatsoever – people just weren’t made aware that this radical change was taking place. It’s scary to think that it almost slipped through the net unnoticed.”
The Manchester-born researcher became interested in CCTV and surveillance when she was an undergraduate student. When she discovered that schools were one of the main consumers of CCTV equipment, she was confused that nobody in the scientific community had asked the obvious questions.
“The political rhetoric at the time was that we needed CCTV coverage to prevent crime. But there was no research being done as to whether it worked and how it was going to be regulated.”
Taylor’s PhD looked at why CCTV was being installed in schools and whether it was effective. What she uncovered was the unvoiced clash of two strongly opposing perspectives.
“The teachers saw the surveillance as largely positive. They were concerned about the growing litigation culture, that they might be sued if they made the wrong decisions or intervened in fights, and so CCTV was almost this guardian of truth in the corner of the classroom that they could use to defend their position.
“On the other hand, the pupils saw CCTV in a very negative light. The whole public discourse around CCTV was that it’s used to catch offenders. So the pupils felt criminalised; they wanted to know why the cameras had been turned on them – what were they doing that warranted that continuous monitoring and scrutiny.”
One of the main reasons given for the introduction of CCTV to schools was that it could tackle bullying. Ironically, the students felt that rather than enhancing their safety, the omnipresent cameras were actually undermining it.
“The pupils told me that it doesn’t prevent bullying, it simply moves it to a different location,” says Taylor.
“No longer will they get their bag stolen in the corridors, where there might be a teacher who could intervene; it’s now on the way home or at the bus stop.”
It wasn’t just in schools that CCTV was proving to be less than had been promised. In an incredible surge, the UK Government had spent at least £500 million increasing the number of cameras monitoring the public from 100 in 1990 to an estimated 4.2 million in 2009. This figure equated to one camera for every 14 people. And yet, a report released by the UK police stated that for every 1,000 cameras, only one crime is solved each year.
“It’s important to remember that the effectiveness of CCTV has never been proven,” says Taylor. “But it’s not even questioned anymore.”
Despite the apparent ineffectiveness of CCTV, a new wave of sophisticated technology has invaded schools around the globe, including in Australia.
“During my research, I became aware of other technologies creeping into schools – fingerprinting, iris scanning, microchips,” says Taylor.
“The impetus for the introduction of the fingerprinting and iris scanning technology was largely to automate library books loans. The idea was that a seven-year-old might lose their library card, but they can’t lose their finger!”
Taylor describes this argument as “nonsense”.
“Part of the school curriculum should be around teaching pupils to be responsible for their possessions, rather than having this very expensive, quick-fix, James Bond technology,” she says.
It was surprising to find students’ very personal information gathered for something as simple as borrowing library books. However, it was much more worrying to consider the reasons behind the surveillance.
“The more cynical side of me thinks it’s about big corporations trying to find a market for the sophisticated technology they’ve developed,” says Taylor.
“I believe these technologies were targeted at schools – which had quite a lot of autonomy – as a test bed to see how effective they were, with the view to then rolling them out to the rest of society.”
What really concerned Taylor was that the very early fingerprinting systems had been donated to schools by the manufacturers free of charge.
“So the schools didn’t have to pay for them; and there’s this thinking that, ‘well, someone’s going to offer us something worth £20,000, of course we’ll take it’.
“But once 10 or 20 schools have it, the other schools think, ‘are we missing out on something here?’ Because they feel the need to demonstrate that they are very supportive of their pupils’ advancement, of their safety.”
In the same way that CCTV had, these highly sophisticated, pioneering technologies also flew largely under the radar.
“I would say to parents, ‘has your child has been fingerprinted at school’. And they’d say, ‘of course not, I would know’ and I would reply, ‘well, there’s nothing in the laws to say that they have to inform you about it’. And this look of shock would suddenly come over their faces.”
When Taylor’s findings on the prevalence of fingerprinting in schools were picked up by the media, the resulting public outcry culminated in the passing of tighter surveillance regulations in UK Parliament last year.
“The danger is that these technologies take hold very quickly and because legislation is so slow to catch up, this is often in the absence of public debate, or even awareness. There was always the possibility that by the time the law caught up, the public wouldn’t challenge it because they were so used to it.
“But suddenly this public awareness really gathered momentum and now a child’s fingerprints cannot be taken without parental consent, which is fantastic,” she says.
While the UK laws have finally caught up with technology, Australia is facing the same decisions the UK was confronted with 10 years ago.
Around 50 schools in NSW and half the public high schools in Perth have CCTV systems. Kuring-gai High School in Sydney suspended their fingerprinting system in 2008 after reports that students had been intimidated into participating.
Closer to home, millions of dollars have been funnelled into CCTV infrastructure in Civic and Manuka and every ACTION bus carries at least one camera.
So how do our laws stack up?
“From what I can determine, there’s nothing specifically relating to CCTV and certainly nothing relating to CCTV in schools in the Australian legislation at the moment,” says Taylor.
“Australia is in quite a lucky position in that their UK counterparts have already gone down the surveillance route. They’ve wasted an incredible amount of money on something that’s turned out to be pretty ineffective.”
Does Taylor think Australia will learn from the UK’s actions?
“I certainly hope Australia doesn’t follow the UK to the same extent. Investing money in CCTV comes at the expense of other solutions, so its appropriateness needs to be considered.”
But with 30 CCTV cameras in the main hubs, Canberra seems to be heading down that route.