Surveillance creeping into local schools

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 June, 2011, 12:00am

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The intrusion of CCTV systems into schools isn't just a problem in Britain. Many Hong Kong schools are following suit by installing cameras on their premises. The main explanation schools give for that is to prevent burglary.

Chong Yiu-kwong, a solicitor who works for The Hong Kong Institute of Education, says he is disappointed to see a growing number of schools getting CCTVs.

Chong points out that schools need to meet certain requirements for installing the devices if they do not want to risk breaking the law.

'CCTV is being widely promoted as a reliable security system and schools are buying into that,' he said. 'Under the personal data ordinance, the manner of data collection must be for a lawful purpose. Users must use such data in a lawful and fair manner.'

Chong noted that if a school's CCTV system failed to prevent burglary, then students might legitimately question the rationale for the surveillance system.

'There was a case of CCTV installation at the Cheung Sha Wan Post office that attracted much public attention to the issue of privacy protection,' he said. 'Theft of mail is prevalent at the office and cameras were installed in the hope of solving the problem. But mail theft continued so postal workers asked for the CCTV system to be removed because the cameras invaded their privacy yet failed to contribute to solving the thefts.'

For data collection to be done in a lawful and fair manner, students and teachers need to be informed of where the CCTVs are installed.

Chong added CCTV systems in schools could have a negative effect on learning.

'Nobody enjoys being under surveillance. Students and teachers certainly don't,' he noted. 'From an education point of view, what is the purpose of warning students not to misbehave because they are being watched? The key to education is to teach students self-discipline, to behave well even when nobody is watching.'

The long-term effect of surveillance, Chong said, is that students may lose respect for privacy issues because they think it is natural to pry into the affairs of others, just as other people were prying into theirs.

Surveillance at schools also raises concerns over teachers' rights. While teachers can legally search students, they have to follow guidelines from the Education Bureau.

'I don't think local teachers are not given enough power to discipline students as it is,' Chong said. 'The key to education is not whether teachers have the power to do certain things to students but to educate students to behave in the right way. In case of serious issues like drugs, schools should contact the police and let them do the search.'

The introduction of high-tech devices such as face or fingerprint recognition tools may cause teachers to tread a fine line between monitoring students and protecting their privacy. That calls for prudence, Chong cautioned.