UK teachers' union says no to bill allowing searches of student mobiles

Filed Under: Law & order, Mobile, Privacy, Social networks

teacher student mobile
The UK teachers' union, NASUWT, calls government plans to allow teachers to search and even delete content on student mobile phones "reckless", according to the BBC.

The education bill introduces the following measures in order to help combat cyber-bullying:

(6E) The person [eg, a teacher] who seized the item [eg, 'an electronic device' belonging to a pupil] may examine any data or files on the device, if the person thinks there is a good reason to do so.

(6F) Following an examination under subsection (6E), if the person has decided to return the item to its owner, retain it or dispose of it, the person may erase any data or files from the device if the person thinks there is a good reason to do so.

Teachers claim that putting these measures into action will cause friction between teachers, pupils and parents.

Fellow security blogger Kevin Townsend takes exception to these measures in this post, "...it is a long time since I heard such a ridiculous, authoritarian, draconian, illiberal, high-handed and utterly absurd suggestion."

Cyber-bullying is however a very real threat, and the government and teachers need to find a better way to combat it. Research published earlier this month by BullyingUK said that 43.5% of respondents aged 11-16 had been bullied via social networks such as Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, Twitter.

Incidents include happy slapping, where someone is physically hit across the head and the incident is recorded on mobile phones and shared between friends and via social networks. Last August, two teens received stiff sentences for killing a 67-year-old man during a "happy slap" incident.

Another form of cyberbullying is known as Facebook raping, or "fraping". This is where a person's Facebook account is accessed by an unauthorised third party and set to 'Like' unsavory items or display hurtful or embarrassing posts on the victim's Facebook wall.

Finding the right balance between protecting innocent students, identifying and disarming school bullies, all while maintaining strong and open relationships with students and their parents is no easy feat.

I, like the NASUWT, would want to shy away from this proposed approach. It ignores the students' rights to privacy.

If a student was indeed bullying another pupil, and this was reported to the school authorities, perhaps they should have the right to review a device's content, but only if it pertains to the specific allegation.

I wonder if this controversial issue could be addressed by simply tightening up the vague and open-ended wording ("if the person thinks there is a good reason to do so") in the educational bill's clauses.

This would allow the students to have a clearer idea of what they are allowed and not allowed to do. This approach might also be more acceptable to teachers, who might feel they are on more solid ground when they ask for a device to be handed over.

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7 Responses to UK teachers' union says no to bill allowing searches of student mobiles

  1. Rob · 1282 days ago

    Does anyone else think this will simply result in more people simply encrypting and passcode protecting their devices, and refusing to hand over access to them?

    • andoroots · 1282 days ago

      I agree. I'm an IT-geek (just started college) and I could easily manage such a feat even if I had an older phone that doesn't have such security built in. It's reasonable to presume that students who are up to no good would find a way to obscure their sensitive information, whether by a high level encryption algorithm or something as simple as a Caesar cipher.

      Being allowed to physically gain access to student's devices - using a fuzzy excuse no less - is no guarantee that anything useful will come of it. If the teachers feel the need to stop cheating it's quite simple: no electronic devices during class. Electronic bullying however is a difficult problem to tackle and would be better solved by psychological methods not outright violation of (innocent?) students privacy.

  2. Ed Truitt · 1282 days ago

    I don't often find myself taking the side of teachers unions, but they are spot on in this case. Teachers have enough to do, without having to take on the additional responsibility for policing the contents of students' mobile devices. Especially in light of such a vaguely-worded statute. For example: teacher is making out with student, it gets caught on another student's phone, and the teacher seizes, and deletes, the incriminating evidence - because the teacher thought "there was a good reason to do so."

    D'oh!

    Like so many other legal/regulatory abominations these days, they are focusing too much on the "cyber" and not near enough on the "bullying". Bullying which involves violent and/or potentially injurious activities is a serious matter, and needs to be addressed. Bullying which involves excessive teasing or humiliation is also serious, but doesn't require the same level of response from the authorities. This type of proposal reminds me very much of the "zero tolerance" nonsense that gripped (and still grips) the USofA, and has led to some really stupid laws. And anecdotes regarding their enforcement that are an equal mixture of humorous and outrage.

    ~EdT.

  3. Mark · 1282 days ago

    As much as I hate bullying and bullies, this is way too intrusive. Besides, there would be some cases where the child is innocent but may have his/her own private content on the phone he/she does not wish the teacher to see (nor would any decent teacher want to see it, but I am concerned about the very small few who might decide to steal it).

    If a law has been broken, confiscate the phone but get the police in to search it (with parents present). If no law has been broken, call in the parents and ask them (with the child present) to search the phone.

    A related side note: I am concerned about the encroachment of the state into the family unit. I know some parents are irresponsible, and the parents of bullies are often the reason why the child bullies, but I am totally against teachers/schools/doctors etc. having more power, control or influence in a child's life than the parents. Parents should always be ultimately responsible for their children, not the state. The state should work to encourage and educate parents but never circumvent them unless the child's life/health is in immediate danger (and then only as much as is required to remove the immediate danger, but not more). If the parents don't take their responsibilities seriously, prosecute and penalise them until it hurts them enough to do so.

    • andoroots · 1281 days ago

      A thought that came up when I discussed the topic with my roommate:
      Suppose the student is having a conversation with his/her boy/girlfriend via MSN. If the person who confiscated the device wanted to know what the student was up to what would be the first place to look? Besides browser history. Bingo - the chatlogs. It's a fact that we often express ourselves very differently in chatrooms than we would in real life and such an intrusion would very likely add a psychological weight in addition to all the 'normal' puberty worries.

      If there indeed is a powerful reason to violate one's privacy in such a way...the bare minimum should be that another party (parent, the principal?) be present.

      With great power comes great responsibility. The fact that the superuser in an Unix environment has the ability to go snooping after the users it doesn't mean (s)he should/would.

  4. What might the next step be? Should we then also arm our teachers like we have our BLM agents? We are moving closer and closer to a world police state.

  5. Matt · 1275 days ago

    I can't imagine any students I know complying to this measure. Society has changed far too much to simply pass a law allowing teachers to search students' phones or physically search them without consent. While the youth of the 70's might have allowed this to happen, today's teenagers would be far more likely to assault a teacher attempting to apply their new powers than to give over their phones.

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About the author

Hi. I am a social, brand and communications expert with 10 years in senior roles in the tech space. I'm currently Sophos' s Global Director of Social Media and Communities. Proudest work achievement? Creating and launching award-winning Naked Security. Outside work, I am a mean cook, an avid reader, a chronic insomniac, a podcast obsessive and blogger .