Surveillance in Education: Why Privacy is Necessary For Intellectual Freedom

The use of surveillance technologies in educational institutions has long been a topic of interest for me. Motivated by the intention to further unpack some key themes in the topic of institutionalised surveillance, the following blog post aims to draw a more satisfactory conclusion (as compared to my presentation) on the adoption of surveillance technologies as EdTech in our shared digital future.

“big brother school” by srslyguys is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Background and Context

Short for ‘Educational Technology’, EdTech refers to IT tools and educational practices aimed at facilitating and enhancing learning. Accounting for a wide range of technologies in the realm of education, widely-known systems such as Turnitin, Eduroam and Xovis are also included under this category of technology.

Contextualised within the modern information society, where information technologies have optimised our lives to become more efficient and secure than ever before, they have simultaneously become increasingly pervasive by nature and resemble more and more surveillance technology. Methods of data collection and codification render independent agents as data subjects; creating conditions for risk calculations and generating further insecurities in individuals and the society they operate in.

Whilst the risk of such surveillance technologies may seem inapparent, surveillance of any kind and in any form have direct consequences on its agents. Surveillance not only changes the way we think, but people also behave differently when they are being watched. Proven able to impair a student’s performance, damage trust, and further encourage conformity to these ‘violent infrastructures’, the following blog post argues that privacy is needed for intellectual freedom in educational institutions. 

Infrastructural Violence

A term commonly used to materialise the idea of structural violence, ‘infrastructural violence’ refers to the socially disruptive consequences of digital infrastructures that are often sold as technologies of care and protection. When applied to the case of surveillance technologies, their deployment in educational institutions not only directly impacts the students but further severs trust between the institution and its agents.

Processes of identity codification not only dehumanises the individuals but further generate sound opportunities for their commodification. By using the body as an identity token where students within the educational institution are regarded as data subjects, identity becomes a form of intellectual property that can be stolen and risk becoming targets of surveillance and insecurity (Amoore, 2006).

Furthermore, such processes threaten the symmetry of trust between the students and the Institution and result in not only the reconfiguration of education as both a practice but also an institution. There exists an evident mismatch between what an educational institution promises and the values it promotes. Simultaneous with the promotion of intellectual freedom, equality, and open access to education, lived experiences are characterised by intellectual surveillance; where institutions are becoming sites of surveillance and governance. Not only are there no proven claims to show that such technologies help improve student performance, institutions are also increasingly becoming infrastructural proxies for modernity and efficiency, functioning largely as a sort of ‘technological status symbol’ in the modern information society (Gray, 2018).

True Agency

When asked about whether these technologies changed my consumption preferences, I answered that it was less a matter of ‘voting’ with your own agency but more about acknowledging the limits of your agency and redefining the remits and boundaries between yourself and the technology in question.

When it is considered that there is a fixed power dynamic in schools where the students don’t have the ability to question the technologies they are being subjected to, more focus should be given to acknowledging the risks behind normalising the use of surveillance technologies in education.

Students should not only remain vigilant against disproportionate levels of technological subjugation, but the institution itself should also work to address and re-educate students on navigating the emerging ‘surveillance society’ (Bryce, et al. 2010).

‘Forthcoming’ Digital Future

Instead of offering an exact timeframe for when surveillance technologies become fully adopted as EdTech in society, I suggested that it was a ‘forthcoming’ development. ‘Forthcoming’ because its degree of adoption differs greatly depending on the agent(s) in question.

Visible attitude shifts towards surveillance technologies can be evidenced at the level of the European Union and the United Nations. Whilst not necessarily directed at the use of surveillance technologies in education, such attitude shifts predicate a downwards trickle of potential ‘group-think’ behaviour, where agents from all levels of society (from national to the local governance, to individuals) become accustomed to these technologies in daily life.

Whilst impossible to draw a singular conclusion for society as a whole, it is possible instead to assess bodies of governance, institutions, and social groups on their susceptibility to surveillance technologies whilst taking into account their respective social contexts, methods of execution, and potential resistance.

Need for Privacy

Returning to the need for privacy in educational institutions, students are being subjected to a disproportionate level of surveillance. Direct consequences don’t have to exist for your options to be limited and decisions to change and there is increasing evidence to support that internet surveillance, in particular, deters individuals from reading unpopular or controversial ideas. Quoting from Neil Richards, author of Why Privacy Matters, “a free society should not fear dangerous ideas and does not need complete intellectual surveillance. Existing forms of surveillance and policing are enough”.

There seems to be this predilection with most modern technological developments, that as soon as something is developed, it has a place in society. Increasingly manifesting in inconspicuously pervasive and ubiquitous forms, it’s attractive to subscribe to the conventional narrative of the privacy threat, where institutional surveillance has grown and simultaneously increasingly infringes on individual privacy rights. Whilst the distinction between technologies as tools of care and control continue to be blurred, the need for privacy to ensure intellectual freedom in educational institutions is echoed in the stipulation that “the work of surveillance…is not to erode privacy rights but rather to distribute them” (Zuboff, 2015). It is when ‘care’ is used to “account for, rationalise, and promote surveillance technologies” that such digital futures should be resisted.


Amoore, Louise. 2006. “Biometric Borders: Governing Mobilities in the War on Terror.” Political Geography, 25 (3), pp.336-51.

Bryce, T.G.K., Nellis, M., Corrigan, A., Gallagher, H., Lee, P. & Sercombe, H. 2010. “Biometric Surveillance in Schools: Cause for concern or case for curriculum?” Scottish Educational Review, 42 (1), pp.3-22.

Gray, S. L. 2018. “Biometrics in Schools.” In: Deakin, J and Taylor, E and Kupchik, A. (eds.) The Palgrave International Handbook of School Discipline, Surveillance, and Social Control. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, UK. pp. 405-424.

Zuboff, Shoshana. (2019) The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for the future at the new frontier of power. London: Profile Books.

Online Sources

Caines, Autumn. 24 May 2021. “The Weaponization of Care” Real Life Magazine. (Accessed 02 December 2021)

Lexie. 16 June 2021. “Why encryption is vital in free societies.” ExpressVPN. (Accessed 24 November 2021)

Burgess, Maat. 07 July 2021. “Europe makes the case to ban biometric surveillance.” Wired. (Accessed 24 November 2021)

Jamie. 23 August 2021. “New semester, new surveillance: How schools plan to monitor students.” ExpressVPN. (Accessed 24 November 2021)

Davies, Rob. 26 October 2021. “‘Conditioning an entire society’: the rise of biometric data technology” Guardian. (Accessed 24 November 2021)