Delhi school teachers fight attendance app over privacy fears

A teacher gives a lesson inside a classroom following the reopening of schools at 50% capacity after months of closure due to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak, at a government school in New Delhi, India. With the attendance app, the level of surveillance from tracking and accessing data cannot be justified as a means to log attendance, said Jain. — Reuters

As Covid-19 shuttered India’s schools and overwhelmed its hospitals, teachers in Delhi were roped in for emergency duties – from handing out food rations to staffing vaccination centres, often at great risk to themselves.

But many baulked when told to download an attendance app on their mobile phones that could track their location – adding to hefty surveillance measures in the capital’s schools that critics say infringe the privacy of students and staff.

Warned by city authorities that their wages would be withheld if they failed to comply, the teachers are fighting back.

“We weren’t consulted on this app, we weren’t told about its features – we were just sent a link and ordered to download it on our mobile phones,” said Vibha Singh, a senior vice president of the Nagar Nigam Shikshak Sangh (NNSS) teachers’ union.

After numerous complaints, the union filed suit at the city’s High Court last month, arguing that the app violated their privacy. The next hearing is due on Sept 27.

“These are our personal phones, and the app tracks our location at all times. We don’t know what other information it can access, or who has access to the data – what if it gets hacked? Women teachers are especially at risk,” Singh said.

Even before the app was launched, some of Delhi’s public schools had closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras with facial recognition technology, a measure digital rights advocates have condemned as an “overreach”.

India’s capital is among the world’s most surveilled cities, with more than 1,800 cameras per square mile – the highest concentration globally, according to estimates by technology website Comparitech.

An official at the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), which is the defendant in the teachers’ union’s lawsuit, said the app merely logs the attendance of teachers and poses no privacy or safety risks.

“It is a misunderstanding that the app can compromise their privacy. We have held several talks with the teachers to explain the app and to allay their fears,” said Muktamay Mandal, deputy director of education at SDMC.

“We are moving towards increased digitalisation in every sphere – we are downloading so many apps everyday. If they have nothing to hide, what is there to fear?” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Growing pushback

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments and corporations to launch a wide array of technologies on the grounds of health and safety that can track people, with few privacy safeguards, digital rights experts say.

Increasingly, workers are pushing back against what they see as a violation of their rights.

Municipal employees in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh protested last year against GPS-enabled tracking smartwatches they were required to wear, with the data that was gathered linked to performance ratings and salaries.

Earlier this year, thousands of government-accredited community healthcare workers – who are mostly women – protested against a mobile app they said tracked their location and recorded their performance.

With the attendance app, the level of surveillance from tracking and accessing data cannot be justified as a means to log attendance, said Anushka Jain, an associate counsel at digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation in Delhi.

“There is no need to track them throughout the day; that is surveillance. It’s very problematic that these apps and technologies are being forced upon people without any data protection guidelines,” she said.

“The growing pushback we are seeing is not only about the right to privacy, but also because misuse of these technologies is so rampant and people understand that the worst-case scenario is not just hypothetical, it is highly likely,” she said.

A long-delayed Personal Data Protection Bill that aims to create a framework for what kind of data can be collected, and for how it is collected, processed and stored, will impose penalties for the misuse of any personal data.

But the draft bill contains numerous exceptions, particularly for government agencies, Jain said.

In Delhi, school teachers previously used a biometrics machine or logged on to a website to log their attendance, said Singh, a school principal, but these options have been replaced by the app.

Several teachers who failed to downloaded the app have had their wages withheld, said Singh, adding that the requirement was also problematic in households with only one smartphone that may be used by other members of the family during the day.

“If we must use this app, then give us separate devices that we can use for attendance and other school work,” she said.

“We can then leave the device in the school, and know it is not tracking us. We have no objection to that.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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