Schools are installing “spying” software that “actively listens” to pupils, to crack down on vaping, bullying and rowdiness in toilets.
The sensors can be programmed to listen for certain keywords through machine learning algorithms, which trigger alerts to chosen staff members.
One firm selling the equipment says they can “monitor staff so you can deal with incidents such as bullying by colleagues”.
But Big Brother Watch’s senior advocacy officer Madeleine Stone said that “secretly monitoring school bathrooms is a gross violation of children’s privacy and would make pupils and parents deeply uncomfortable”.
‘Violation’ of kids’ privacy in schools
“No school should consider spying on children’s private conversations and doing so is highly likely to be unlawful. This misguided surveillance poses a clear safeguarding risk and should be allowed nowhere near UK schools.”
However, a spokesperson for Triton, which makes the 3D Sense pro sensor, said its aim is to “provide an additional layer of security against threats like bullying or sexual assault in these areas, reinforcing a safe school environment … to enhance safety, not monitor everyday conversations.”
The sensor has 10 built-in keywords, such as ‘help me’ and ‘stop it’. School leaders can also add 10 “customisable” keywords to listen for.
One company selling the sensor, Emergency Protection, described on its website how keywords and phrases were “constantly added through OTA [over-the-air] updates”.
Similarly, Halo smart sensors, made by the US company IPVideo (owned by Motorola Solutions) come pre-loaded with five keyword phrases and schools can request to include others.
After the AI learns different pronunciations of new keywords, the software is updated so these words can be detected by all Halo sensors in schools nationwide, said Jon Glover, a manager at Halo sensor seller Millgate.
Schoolwatch, another seller, said nine UK schools use the 3D Sense Pro, which retails for £999. The company describes the sensor’s algorithm as “actively listening” to pupils.
When asked about the spying concern, its managing director Andrew Jenkins said he’d had “many conversations” about the issue at the BETT edtech show last week.
Staff sent texts when sensors triggered
The main worry from prospective school buyers was whether conversations are either live monitored or recorded.
“The answer is no… when triggered, staff will receive an alert via SMS, push via their app and email,” Jenkins said. Nothing is saved or recorded, he added.
More than 1,500 US school districts are using Halo Smart Sensors, made by US company IPVideo, owned by Motorola Solutions.
Between 30 and 40 have been sold in the UK primary and secondary schools and colleges, said Jon Glover, a manager at Halo sensor seller Millgate.
Some schools, including Baxter College in Kidderminster, are pairing the sensors with surveillance cameras, so when activated by a vaping sensor they capture students leaving bathrooms. It has four of the sensors, which connect to a cloud and can retain data for a year.
The 3C-PC version of the sensor can also count how many people are in a room and issue an alert if it gets too noisy or they detect gunshots.
66% of teachers found pupils vaping
IPVideo’s website suggests schools can install sensors in locker rooms, classrooms and dormitories, as well as bathrooms.
Ecl-ips, another seller of Halo sensors, describes on its website how they can be “used to monitor staff so you can deal with incidents such as bullying by colleagues”.
Cheaper fire alarm-type vape detectors are more widely used by schools.
Two thirds of teachers said they had found pupils vaping or with vaping equipment when surveyed by Teacher Tapp last year. One in five said the youngest pupil caught was under 12.
This week, the government announced a ban on disposable vapes and measures to prevent vapes being marketed at children.
Unruly school bathroom behaviour has long been an issue. Almost three-quarters of secondaries built since 2010 do not include a door to the corridor, with many removing it for monitoring purposes.
Schools install tech after pupils collapsed
St Joseph’s College, in Stoke-on-Trent, placed Halo Sensors in two toilet blocks in September. After they became “very active in the first few weeks”, it installed five others elsewhere.
Deputy headteacher Charlotte Slattery said they were “more interested” in the vaping alert than the sensor’s keyword and noise detection features, although they use those too.
The school had not sought parental consent, but parent feedback around their vaping strategy was “very positive”.
Kay Firth-Butterfield, chief executive of the Center for Trustworthy Technology, said parents should be asked for consent first. However, a Schoolwatch representative said schools did not need parental permission because personal information was not being stored.
St Joseph’s RC High School, in Horwich, installed Halo sensors in toilets in September following three instances of pupils collapsing after using THC vapes. They were activated 112 times in a day at first, but cases have dropped.
Headteacher Tony McCabe was “not aware” the sensors detect keywords, and “if they do, we haven’t monitored this”.
A recent LA Times report found vape sensors aren’t always effective. They went off “so frequently, administrators felt it was useless to review security footage each time”, said Michael Allman, a board member for California’s San Dieguito Union High School District.