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Delhi school teachers resist attendance app over privacy fears

As COVID-19 shuttered India's schools and overwhelmed its hospitals, teachers in Delhi were roped in for emergency duties - from handing out food rations to staffing vaccination centres, often at great risk to themselves.

But many baulked when told to download an attendance app on their mobile phones that could track their location - adding to hefty surveillance measures in the capital's schools that critics say infringe the privacy of students and staff.

Highlights

  • Thousands of teachers ordered to download tracking app
  • Mobile phone app used to check on their attendance
  • Teachers file suit as other workers reject surveillance

Warned by city authorities that their wages would be withheld if they failed to comply, the teachers are fighting back.

"We weren't consulted on this app, we weren't told about its features - we were just sent a link and ordered to download it on our mobile phones," said Vibha Singh, a senior vice president of the Nagar Nigam Shikshak Sangh (NNSS) teachers' union.

After numerous complaints, the union filed suit at the city's High Court last month, arguing that the app violated their privacy. The next hearing is due on Sept. 27.

"These are our personal phones, and the app tracks our location at all times. We don't know what other information it can access, or who has access to the data - what if it gets hacked? Women teachers are especially at risk," Singh said.

Even before the app was launched, some of Delhi's public schools had closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras with facial recognition technology, a measure digital rights advocates have condemned as an "overreach".

Delhi is among the world's most surveilled cities, with more than 1,800 cameras per square mile - the highest concentration globally, according to estimates by technology website Comparitech.

An official at the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), which is the defendant in the teachers' union's lawsuit, said the app merely logs the attendance of teachers and poses no privacy or safety risks.

"It is a misunderstanding that the app can compromise their privacy. We have held several talks with the teachers to explain the app and to allay their fears," said Muktamay Mandal, deputy director of education at SDMC.

"We are moving towards increased digitalisation in every sphere - we are downloading so many apps everyday. If they have nothing to hide, what is there to fear?" he told.

In Delhi, school teachers previously used a biometrics machine or logged on to a website to log their attendance, said Singh, a school principal, but these options have been replaced by the app.

Several teachers who failed to downloaded the app have had their wages withheld, said Singh, adding that the requirement was also problematic in households with only one smartphone that may be used by other members of the family during the day.

"If we must use this app, then give us separate devices that we can use for attendance and other school work," she said.

"We can then leave the device in the school, and know it is not tracking us. We have no objection to that." Reuters

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