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I Am Skooter
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
It's my father's voice dreaming of / Sailors sailing off in the morning
— Wilco, Poor Places
June 5, 2010
A Halifax Principal Falls Prey to the Surveillance Society

We live in an era of unprecedented surveillance, and it continues to grow. While governments and private businesses alike assure us that the Big Brother of Orwell’s 1984 isn’t going to happen, the reality is that out lives are increasingly monitored and recorded. A school principal in Halifax, Nova Scotia is learning quite a bit about this these days, after a video of his interaction with a student was leaked to YouTube.

The Globe and Mail has an article on the topic. I’ve added emphasis to reflect some thoughts, which I’ll elaborate on:

Halifax principal wrestles student to ground, escapes dismissal
Oliver Moore, Published on Saturday, Jun. 05, 2010 9:26AM EDT

Video of a Halifax-area principal wrestling one of his students to the ground and manhandling him through the halls has sparked a furious debate here on school discipline and raised the _always-fraught issue of race relations.

The leaked surveillance tape shows Ken Fells, a black man with a military background, grappling with 14-year-old Josh Boutilier. The 74-second video on YouTube shows the white student trying to push past the principal before he is hurled to the floor and frog-marched to the office in a full-nelson.

“Everything just went blank and I didn’t know what do,” Josh said on Friday. “I wasn’t hurt at the time because I was in really bad shock, but after a couple of hours I started to hurt real bad.”

But Mr. Fells’s vocal supporters say surveillance videos rarely show the whole picture and school staff need the discretion to deal with students who pose a danger. The Black Educators Association rallied to his defence.

Some interesting things to consider here:

The Video Should Never Have Been Made Public

The video was leaked—stolen, in effect, by the husband of school board superintendent Carole Olsen. This video should never have been made public, and that is a pretty clear violation of both Principal Fells’ and the student’s rights. Fells is clearly the party suffering greater harm here, and its shocking that more hasn’t been made of the theft of the material.

This isn’t a small matter either: Carole Olsen has failed in her duty to protect private and privileged information by allowing her husband access to her computer whether unwittingly or otherwise. While this may seem benign, consider the possibility that the laptop may contain private information including addresses and phone numbers. The school board has a duty to protect that information, and in this case their agent has failed completely.

Why is Fells’ Race Relevant?

In the 21st century, I can’t understand how the fact that the principal is black is even relevant to the issue. Haven’t we moved past this? Is there actually an implication that Principal Fells would have treated a black student any differently? Are people actually raising the issue of the principal being black when they’re commenting on this?

What Happened Before the Camera Caught This?

As Fells’ supporters have pointed out, the surveillance camera shows only part of the picture. While it’s clear that something happened to lead up to this, there’s been little said (and less reported) about the prelude to the incident. With national media broadcasting the tape and 200,000 views on YouTube there’s effectively been a public trial here with no due process and no attempt to be balanced or fair.

Semi-anonymous comments on YouTube, the Globe and elsewhere will run rampant, with little relevance to the reality of the situation.

Teaching is a difficult job and teaching high school students is especially difficult. Teenagers talk back and ignore teachers, and are as capable of causing bodily harm as any full grown adult. I certainly wouldn’t argue that high school teachers don’t occasionally cross the line, but they also deserve respect and don’t often get it.

The Surveillance Society

Is this an example of the good or the bad of the surveillance society?

As in most cases, it’s a bit of both. Closed circuit cameras in schools—an environment where legal minors interact extensively with people who are not their legal guardians—are arguably reasonable. The major issue here is the leak of the public video, which has effectively created a public lynch mob and bypassed any reasonable attempt at respecting due process.

Privacy rights are a slippery slope, and the danger of the surveillance society is that they can increase the speed of descent quite quickly. Ken Fells’ life and career has probably been altered permanently by this violation of his privacy. While it might seem benign, put yourself in his shoes in a moment of tension…a moment of anger…a moment where your behaviour, anonymized and out of context might be perceived as hostile or damaging.

The danger of the surveillance society is that your moment is recorded and made public.


Posted by skooter at 7:53 PM This entry is filed under Technology.
This entry is tagged: Human Rights, Surveillance

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