I have recently come across LAs and schools that are considering buying software that keeps a track on what is happening on their network(s) – Such software can record online activity by individuals, including web pages visited and messages sent – so said the BBC earlier this week.

Is this what we really want? I am not talking about trying to track teachers who are on their facebook accounts or ordering their groceries in teaching time. I am talking about intrusion and civil liberties. I am sure that those who have adopted such systems can justify their stance in respect to safeguarding but is it any less personally intrusive than the ‘in the background’ actions of Google etc.

The BBC 2 programme, broadcast last evening, in the Digital Revolution series (more here) explained in detail how web searches capture not just our chance data but details about our very life and times. And we have come to expect and accept this just as we do when we hand over a loyalty card at the supermarket checkout. Although the programme was not to my taste – too much clever television and ‘in your face’ presentation in off-site locations – it did get me to wonder who it was aimed at. This, as it was broadcast at peak viewing time on Saturday evening.

But do we want this everywhere?

Telford and Wrekin Council in the English Midlands is one of the many local authorities understood to have introduced such software in all its schools. The council says everyone who logs onto system sees a screen which says activity on the schools’ computers is being monitored.

The underlined bit above took my mind back to the positive messages on safeguarding I heard on Wednesday of last week at the Becta Conference on the theme. If we are considering that the best way forward in safeguarding users is education then surely openly telling them that they are being watched is not the best way to  go about it.

Attribution:Image: ‘Vigilando

6 thoughts on “E-Surveillance

  1. Certainly so … or I would have thought so … just not sure why people are making such a big deal of doing it and feel sure that it isn’t necessary. Should be about educating surely.

  2. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

    Orwell 1984

  3. I think it’s worth looking at. 8 years ago as ICT co-ordinator at Cruompsall Lane I set up a piece of keystroke monitoring software by an outfit called Forensic Software (there are others in the market). This software monitored all key strokes and scanned pages on the network reporting “policy breaches” to me. When anyone logged on they were presented with the key rules from the acceptable user policy and told that the system was being monitored.

    What was the practical effect of this system?
    1. we had a virtually open internet (it was a private connection, not LA) and we only blocked porn and violence. This allowed teachers to use any tool that they felt they wanted to.
    2. The Acceptable Use Policy was a live and active policy. Breaches resulted in letters home, interviews with parents and consequences.
    3. Children were trusted to use the internet in clubs, lessons etc and developed a real understanding of the importance of keeping passwords private.

    At the time I thought it felt a bit big brotherish, but rapidly came to an alternative point of view – it allowed teachers to teach, children to gain trust and responsibility and school to demonstrate to parents how effective the school’s acceptable use policy was.

    What would concern me hugely, however, would be the control of such a system being taken out of the control of the school. The reason it was so successful was the fact that either myself or one of my ICT team were checking the policy breach log daily (5 minute job). I would be very worried about an LA based program that allowed the collection and retention of data from my school’s network – what about those occasions when an ICT co-ord has to test the effect of a block by attempting to access inappropriate material – anyone managing a network web connection has to do this (I always logged it in a book)?. As a school, I would want to retain full control of this myself even if it occasionally lead to difficult situations where members of staff needed taking to task for their use of the web. Our AUP was very clear, as ICT co-ord I had a duty to report any serious breaches by staff to the Head and it would be dealt with as a disciplinary matter by the disciplinary policy.

    The bottom line is, I believe that most schools have no idea what goes on on their school’s network and are happy to hide behind the LA’s filter thus absolving themselves of responsibility. The reality is that such an approach is actually an abdication of responsibility and a failure to take e-safety seriously. If it takes monitoring systems for schools to understand the nature of the issue then I think that is a much better route to pursue than the mindless blocking approach.

  4. An excellent call John! The key bits for me are the 3 practical effects. The last comes first in my eye – children/users need to be and feel trusted – if this is the case the pay-back is little or no abise of the system. The moment it smacks of lack of trust then the system breaks.
    Also agree with the localising of the controls – someone in the setting should know and act – not leave it to an external source.

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