Many Chinese universities have installed vast student surveillance systems to facilitate the safe return to the classroom in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the systems offer some combination of facial recognition and temperature detection, as well as contact tracing systems that monitor people’s movements both on and off campus.
While Ministry of Education officials have insisted that the surveillance technology is a necessary response to the pandemic, the new systems are not nearly as popular with students. Some of the systems include surveillance cameras in dorms in addition to points of entry, and students worry that those cameras will stay in place even after the pandemic has passed.
“All of a sudden we found dozens of cameras in our dorm building, six on each floor,” said one student at Peking University.
“I think there is concern among students, but there’s no option but to accept it,” added another, suggesting that invasive surveillance practices could become the new normal.
Students were also not sure how the new systems would work in practice, especially when it comes to contact tracing. According to Reuters, students staying in dorms will need to ask permission before leaving campus, while those who commute will need to provide detailed, daily reports of their travel arrangements, as well as information about their families and the places they visit outside of class. However, many of those self-reporting tools are not yet active.
With one system, school administrators will receive a notification when a student fails to submit a report in a timely fashion. Another will store each student’s temperature readings for 30 days, and uses facial recognition tech to monitor mask compliance. China has been using thermal screening to track the spread of COVID-19 since the early stages of the pandemic, though privacy critics have repeatedly expressed concerns about the sweeping nature of the country’s biometric surveillance capabilities.
For its part, the Ministry of Education said the new systems were not compulsory, although it advised students to adhere to many of the protocols and indicated that “patriotic health campaigns” would be a compulsory part of the curriculum. China has a student population of more than 20 million people.
August 31, 2020 – by Eric Weiss