EDITORIAL: Privacy concerns take precedence

Sat, Jul 28, 2018 - Page 8

Government officials love to jump on the latest trends and say that keeping up with technological innovations is needed to ensure the nation’s — or the city’s or county’s — competitiveness. However, when it comes to personal data and privacy, extra thought and thorough prior consultations with those who would be affected by such changes are crucial, not after-the-fact “opinion gathering” efforts.

This appears to have been a crucial factor missed by the Taipei Department of Education in its decision to install facial-recognition systems in several public schools.

The first that many city residents heard of the idea was when the issue was raised by a Democratic Progressive Party councilor in a city council meeting on Thursday last week, yet the department said it hopes that funding for the four-school trial program would be approved in time for it to be implemented by the end of next month.

A biometric system would enhance school security, allow for “smart roll calls” and help teachers get to know their students, department officials said, as under the new 12-year national education program that begins this fall, high-school students will change classrooms for different subjects, instead of spending most of the day in a homeroom.

That is a bit facile. While changing classrooms for subjects might be new for Taiwanese students and teachers, it has been a common practice in junior and senior-high schools in many nations for decades, and teachers have found ways to “get to know” the students in their classes, even back in the days when biometric technologies were only found in science-fiction novels or television shows.

There have been no consultations with either the students of the four schools, their parents, teachers, or those from other schools in the city about the privacy implications.

Taipei Department of Education Director Tseng Tsan-chin (曾璨金) told the city council that the department was aware of such concerns and would look into the use of information and other issues, but that schools should be willing to give experiments involving innovative technologies a chance.

While Tseng promised the city council that the program would not be implemented without discussing it with faculty and parents, and other officials said the system would be installed, but not turned on, it is worrying that the idea has gotten as far as it has, with a budget of NT$25 million (US$817,207), without such consultations.

This is indicative of the bureaucratic mindset at all levels of government in Taiwan, where programs are hatched and budgeted for, but public opinion is only sought afterward, often under restrictive conditions.

However, it is not just privacy concerns that should be worrying Taipei residents about the use of such technology in schools or installing “smart lampposts” to monitor traffic flow and public gatherings, but the basic flaws in such systems.

As the New York Times reported on Thursday, a test by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of the facial-recognition technology developed by Amazon that is being used by police departments and other organizations in the US called into question the accuracy and biases of the system.

The ACLU test used Amazon Rekognition to compare photographs of lawmakers against a database of 25,000 mug shots, and the technology incorrectly matched 28 US senators and representatives with people who had been arrested, a 5 percent error rate.

The Taipei Department of Education should call an immediate halt to the pilot program and not install the technology until a full public debate can be held and officials can guarantee that privacy, security and accuracy concerns have all been fully addressed, costs be damned.