Wired – Body cams are being trialled in UK schools to keep an eye on students

As originally published in Wired on 08/02/2017

Two schools in the UK are trialling the use of body cams worn by teachers to monitor student behaviour and protect them from abuse.

The schools in question are remaining anonymous, so as not to interfere with the pilot scheme, but the trial period has begun and is set to last for three months. The wearable cameras are being trialled as both a means to deter bad behaviour and also as an opportunity to record positive learning within the classroom. The footage will then be stored on a cloud server, similar to the type used by UK police forces.

In the UK, there have been mounting concerns that schools have become more violent. A study conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that 43 per cent of educational staffhad to deal with physical violence from pupils in 2015. Tom Ellis, principal lecturer at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Portsmouth, states that the body cam scheme comes off the back of teachers being “fed-up with low-level background disorder.” Ellis is an academic and former Home Office researcher who has helped to roll-out body cameras for Hampshire police.

Last year, the Metropolitan police issued more than 22,000 body-worn cameras for use in front-line policing.

Using body cams as a means of surveillance within society has links stretching far further than the dawn of the technological age. The Panoptical vision of 24-hour surveillance as a means of ensuring good behaviour has long been a basis for prison systems. Originally developed by French philosopher Michel Foucault, the premise of the Panopticon is to discipline and punish criminal offenders; as both a deterrent and a means of behaviour modification.

Ellis assures that “filming [in schools] only occurs when it is legitimate, proportionate and necessary” and that the body cams are not to be used as a “surveillance camera”. However, the scheme has still caused concern as to the mentality of policing an educational environment.

A study conducted by the Harvard Law Review in 2015 stated that the use of body cams by American police shows a move towards an “increasingly militarised” state, which may pose a “threat to civilian privacy”. Using body cams in the classroom is arguably another step towards a fully-fledged surveillance state. As for civilian privacy, a multitude of ethical questions have been raised regarding body cams in schools – from the proper management of poor behaviour, to issues of consent surrounding data protection and privacy.

The introduction of the scheme has additionally caused concerns around what exactly justifies ‘necessary’ filming. The potential evolution from as-and-when usage of body cams in schools could sprawl into something far more ominous, critics argue.

Daniel Nesbitt, the research director of Big Brother Watch, said: “This sounds like an over-the-top response to an age-old problem. These schools have to be very careful about how they use this intrusive technology as it risks turning teachers into snoopers. Parents and pupils must be kept fully informed about the trial and be given every opportunity to raise any concerns they may have.”