Thursday, 24 December 2015

Spying on children will make them feel less disenfranchised, apparently

The BBC says:
Schools in England must set online filters and monitor pupils' internet use under plans to protect them from radicalisation, education secretary Nicky Morgan said.
Because spying on people coupled with having power over them has proved such a great way to prevent harm throughout history.  If I were a kid today, would you imagine for a second that an underpaid, under-appreciated school network admin would be able to stop me doing pretty much what I wanted?  I'm talking about a kid who used to spend hours a day in Currys learning to program on their demo model BBC Micros and Spectrums.  For any teachers out there, by the way, I run a course in how kids can very probably get past your internet filters.  Also useful for teachers who (for legitimate reasons) want to get past their school's internet filters.

Besides, what kind of 'monitoring' would be required to prevent all this radicalisation the government is so frightened of?  It's not as though kids will be visiting, or anything.  Clearly, there is some of this stuff going on, but it seems more likely to be happening in places where all the kids hang out.  Social media, educational sites, music sites....  Unless schools are keylogging, they aren't going to be able to stop kids being influenced by scary people on the internet.  I think that level of surveillance is too high a price to pay.
Mrs Morgan said: "As a parent, I've seen just what an important role the internet can play in children's education. But it can also bring risks, which is why we must do everything we can to help children stay safe online - at school and at home." 
The proposed measures include showing young people how to use the internet responsibly and making sure parents and teachers are able to keep youngsters safe from exploitation and radicalisation, she added.
Yep, bring that on. Right up to the "making sure" part.  Does Ms Morgan not understand the definition of "responsibility"?  But as usual, it's the "making sure" part that's the problem.  Look at what she said earlier in the article:
Mrs Morgan said some pupils had been able to access information about so-called Islamic State at school.
The horror! Kids able to find out about what's going on in the world around them!  MAKE IT STOP.

I'm neither a parent nor a teacher but it strikes me that the more information kids have about what's really going on in Syria and elsewhere, the more likely they are to make good decisions.

Filtering might be necessary.  For example, if a kid wants to access a particular site for research or just general interest, there should be an easily-followed pathway that will end in a timely decision and immediate implementation.  The decision should be based on an assessment of the risk of the sites concerned, the responsibility and maturity of the child making the request and - perhaps - should consider whether some sort of monitoring is appropriate.

But surveillance as a knee-jerk reaction is almost always a bad idea.  It's more likely to expose vulnerabilities than to protect people from them.  Not all teachers or other school employees are entirely benevolent to children.  Suppose, for example, a child is being abused at home and wants to use the school's computers to find out what to do, connect with other victims etc.  Are schools going to monitor that activity?  There are times when they probably should, but obviously it must be done with the utmost care.  Schools shouldn't get to charge into a difficult situation, guns blazing.  If schools are going to monitor pupil's browsing activity, then the monitoring needs to be monitored and what school employee has the time or energy for that?

Surveilling kids is not the answer to radicalisation.  Actual answers will involve properly understanding the risks and weighing them against a whole bunch of other things.  It will involve understanding the length kids will go to to get around restrictions.  It takes only one kid at a school to be slightly smarter than the IT people, after all.  I'm pretty confident that I could visit any school in the UK and get around their filter without a great deal of effort or technical skill.  And I'm in no way suggesting that school network admins aren't good at their jobs.  It's just that it really isn't that hard to get around these things.
Their head teacher has said there is no evidence they were radicalised at school as pupils cannot access social media on the academy's computers.
I bet I could prove that statement wrong in under five minutes and if I can, hoards of kids certainly can too.

But the main answer is in that word "responsibility" and its dependent condition, trust.  It doesn't matter whether radicalisation or other forms of abuse take place on school computers or elsewhere.  The only way to deal with abuse - or potential abuse - of children is to treat them like humans.  Provide a safe space where they can talk about things without judgement or threat.  Our desire to protect children is not misplaced.  The way we go about it very often is.

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