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Posted by on Oct 15, 2016

Tracking, Monitoring, Surveilling: Context Matters with ICT for Children in Asia

Reposting this here from Panoply Digital.

Reading a recent UNICEF post from Suman Khadka titled Star Wars: Force For Change supports digital monitoring systems in Cambodia, I found myself reflecting a bit on visibility in terms of tracking, monitoring, and surveillance. The project that Khadka describes involves “the technology for a digital tracking system which converts the paper-based method to an Inspection App. The app can complete the equivalent of a 20-page form — a process that previously took multiple days — in just one day.” It is a direct response to a direct need: “out of 5,583,000 children under the age of 18 in Cambodia, one in every 350 children is currently living in a residential care institution….The issue in Cambodia is not only about the alarming number of children growing up in residential care, but also the lack of efficient and timely inspection systems that monitor the quality of care given to children.” So a large number of children are living in residential care and there isn’t a clear idea as to the quality of that care. An app that cuts through the paperwork, collects systematic data, and presumably feeds that into some centralized database to inform program or policy decisions at the national level. It reduces inefficiency, increases predictability and has the potential to provide some transparency to the residential care system. All well done.

There are a variety of parallel projects throughout Asia that span the range from tracking (which feels helpful) to full-blown surveillance (which feels menacing), all designed around the protection of children. China and products like KidsGuard Watch reflect regional security needs, particularly in child trafficking, with functionality that might appear a bit draconian: “alerts can also be set up to notify parents if their child strays from their usual route home after school – putting paid to any non-approved extra-curricular activities they might have ideas about” and “parents can also remotely switch on an audio recording function which can apparently send 15-second messages back home.” So unlike Cambodia, this example crosses into full-blown surveillance.

There are plenty of products in Thailand as well, with some using watches with SIM cards to track children. India has many more to choose from. In Vietnam, mobile technology and social media are used together to curb child trafficking, particularly of young girls, who are often lured into danger through the social media itself. Out of a population of around 90 million, Zalo, a chat app, has 50 million users and Facebook has over 30 million users; smartphone use is now over 50% of the total population. Providing some mechanism for monitoring this behavior and protecting against inappropriate contact in social media is warranted and so data is gleaned from mobile phones towards that effect.

We have written before about South Korea (the North only has to track behavior through 28 websites so I am guessing they don’t need to build an app) and their rather heavy-handed attempts to track children’s mobile activity through mandated monitoring apps. The app was called Smart Sheriff (really?) and was pulled within months not due to some outrage over its invasiveness, but rather over its security. The data it collected was highly hackable. By attempting to monitor their activity under the trope of making them safer, the South Korean government literally made them less safe.

So essentially we are dealing with different responses in different countries to basically the same problem of keeping children safe. What separates them though, and I think this is critical to understanding surveillance overreach, is the scope of intent. The successful ones were limited in scope, were addressing very specific problems (child trafficking most directly), and had limited parameters of activity (as any good development project should). The less successful ones (less successful as in either an outright failure like Smart Sheriff or activity inhibiting like the Chinese version) were designed to be umbrella solutions. The devil is in the details and in this case the details were the functionalities added. Remote activated audio recordings. Alerts if child deviates from normal route. I am half surprised they weren’t able to activate an electric shock to make them study harder.

This is less about safety and more about control and that is where I draw the line between tracking and surveillance. Keeping an eye on your child is one thing; monitoring all activity and curbing some behavior is another. Yet “how security is perceived is significantly influenced by context and the relationship between the surveyor and the surveilled” (Zedner 2003). So what is the relationship here between the surveyor and the surveilled? Parent to child? State to child? State to parent? In some contexts, these relationships are a little less discrete. Yet it is a discussion worth having in development and why this is one area where I don’t necessarily mind the lack of scalability. Limited scopes and constant oversight, transparency, data security. Protecting against threats rather than curbing behavior. There is a difference.

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