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Privacy, consent, data — what Delhi govt ignores when giving parents live classroom footage

Arvind Kejriwal's Delhi govt needs to conduct a privacy assessment and find out what value does live streaming of classrooms add to children’s security.

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The Delhi government’s decision to give parents access to live video footage of classrooms is worrisome. Although use of CCTV and biometric based technologies is increasing across schools in various states, the decision to livestream classroom proceedings takes the use of these technologies a step further. In 2019, when the project was first announced, the Delhi Parents’ Association filed a writ petition with the Delhi High Court challenging the same. The government claims that live streaming of classrooms will be for the safety of students and bring transparency in the teaching system. It, however, hasn’t addressed many issues that come with it.

Children’s right to privacy 

Just as adults, children also have a right to privacy. The Supreme Court in Puttaswamy observed that “privacy is a natural right, which inheres in every human being by birth”. It’s not that a child gains the right to privacy on reaching a particular age; this right evolves with the child’s age. For example, a sixteen-year-old’s expectation of privacy will be significantly different from a five-year-old’s. And this expectation of the right to privacy arises not only against third parties, but parents as well.

By subjecting children to constant surveillance, the Delhi government’s proposal violates this right to privacy. Schoolchildren spend a majority of their time in classrooms. Live streaming will capture the minutest details throughout school hours and broadcast them to a number of viewers. The feed will comprise sensitive personal data such as facial, voice clippings, behavioural and communications. It is, therefore, highly invasive of children’s privacy.

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Autonomous development

This violation has severe consequences. The school environment serves as a sanctuary in the developmental years of a child. The child engages with new ideas, develops critical thinking skills, inculcates the spirit of camaraderie and really comes into their own. Knowing that they are under the constant gaze of their parents will hamper their autonomous development if they become anxious of being censured at home for their actions. It will also affect children in vulnerable and abusive situations adversely because they often rely on their school communities for support.

Uninformed consent 

The current proposal requires parental consent before providing them with live streaming. (Children whose parents do not give their consent will have to be seated in separate classrooms.) But consent isn’t enough in this case for three reasons.

First, given the complex nature of personal data processing, parents may not have the capacity to understand the implications of what they are consenting to on behalf of their children. Therefore, consent would not be informed.

Second, even if it is supposed that parents understand the privacy policy, the consent being obtained is defective because the school and parents are in an unequal bargaining position. The fact that the children’s assessment of performance, availing scholarships and other material benefits are in the hands of the school, the consent arising out of this dependency would often not be free. Moreover, the school would be incentivised to nudge parents towards providing consent given that they are required to make alternative arrangements for seating for students whose parents don’t consent.

Third, the current design completely excludes students from taking a part in consent. This is violative of India’s obligations under the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is mandated that as children’s capacity and understanding increases, they should be involved in decisions affecting them. The current scheme subjects a 16-year-old to the same monitoring as a five-year-old. It derides the former’s expectation of privacy against their parents.

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No data protection principles 

Apart from ineffective consent, the other problem is that the collection and processing of such sensitive personal data will happen with virtually no legal framework in place.

First, there is no limitation on the kinds of data that may be collected. The CBSE circular mentions that CCTVs should be put in place for “vulnerable/areas”. This reflects some measure of proportionality in deployment. Live streaming classroom proceedings will lead to collection of indiscriminate amounts of data. The purported reason for doing so is to have transparency in teaching. But is this a “necessary and proportionate” invasion of privacy of the teachers and students? There are other teacher assessment programmes that have been designed to be more effective in achieving this goal.

Second, there is no limitation on the kinds of purposes for which this personal data may be processed. While the deployment is purportedly for the safety of students, there seems to be no bar on the school/government to use it for other purposes. A common case could be to use of footage to enforce discipline. More insidious use cases are possible if the government/school decides to share this data with third parties. Children are future consumers for some businesses and current consumers for others. Everybody would be interested. It would lead to profiling, tracking, behavioural monitoring and targeted advertising, right from kindergarten to matriculation. And this will not stop at children. It will be used to target parents as well.

Safety concerns

Even as the project is aimed towards improving the safety of children, it endangers their mental and physical safety to a considerable degree. Morphing of images, leaked footage of children in embarrassing or intimate situations and fake videos are some such harms. It will also incrementally expose the scope of stalking of children, especially girls and younger children. Even though the project reportedly provides for secure credentials to log in, in India, where mobile phones are often shared by multiple persons and digital literacy is very low, such unauthorised access cannot be ruled out.

There is no publicly available data on the kind of security protocols that will be employed to protect this data, the vetting of private firms that will be engaged to carry out this project, the centralisation of this data, the location of the server where this data will be stored and the duration for which it will be stored. This is highly problematic given that children’s data is increasingly being hacked/stolen — be it from governmental databases such as CBSE or private databases of Unacademy and Vedantu. The lack of enforceable and swift penalties makes these databases a sitting duck. The inquiry in the CBSE data breach case that happened in 2019 has still not been concluded.

Way forward

All of these concerns also emerge with respect to the teachers’ privacy and personal data protection. It is important for the Delhi government to re-consider the rollout of this project. At the very least, it should have in place a deterrent framework that guards against its abuses. There is a need to conduct a privacy assessment and find out what incremental value does live streaming of the classrooms add to children’s security. The Delhi government would do well to not steam roll the programme without considering its pernicious fallouts.

The author is a research fellow at the Centre for Applied Law and Technology Research, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. She tweets @TrisheeGoyal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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