Surveillance Used To Give Poor Students Extra Financial Assistance Discreetly. Is That OK?

from the invisible-subsidies dept

A story about surveillance in China is hardly notable — Techdirt has run dozens of them. But there are some unusual aspects to this report on the Sixth Tone site that make it a little out of the ordinary:

The University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), in the eastern province of Anhui, collects data from the charge cards of students who frequently eat in the school cafeteria — usually the cheapest option, thanks to government subsidies — but spend very little on each meal. The school’s student affairs department uses the information for “invisible subsidies,” or allowances delivered without drawing attention — what it calls “a more dignified way for poor students to receive stipends.”

According to the post, the program has been running for many years, but only came to light when a former student posting under the name of “Shannon” wrote an account of being selected in 2005 for additional support, published on the site Zhihu, the Chinese equivalent of Quora. His post has received over 45,000 likes so far, and the number continues to rise. As the Sixth Tone story notes, comments on Shannon’s post have been overwhelmingly positive:

One comment that received over 3,000 likes read: “The University of Science and Technology of China has really got the human touch — they are pretty awesome.” Another netizen, meanwhile, described the innovative scheme as “the right way to use big data.”

This raises a number of questions. For example, does the widespread use of surveillance in China make people more willing to accept this kind of benevolent spying, as here? Or is it simply that its use is felt to be justified because it led to additional funding that was given in a discreet fashion? More generally, how would Chinese citizens feel about this approach being rolled out to other areas of life? Since that’s pretty much what China’s rumored “citizen score” system aims to do, we might find out, if it’s ever implemented.

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Comments on “Surveillance Used To Give Poor Students Extra Financial Assistance Discreetly. Is That OK?”

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Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Third party doctrine

I think the crux of the matter, at least for me, comes down to who has access to the data, not so much what they use it for. (Not that that implicitly means that I’m ok with whatever action, just that how they use data has no bearing on that judgment.) In this story, unless I’m missing something, there are two actors, the student and the school. Unless the cafeteria is owned (not just operated by) a third party, it should be trivially obvious that the school has access to that data. If nothing else they’ll need to track sales just so they can do inventory management. It would seem a bit crazy to me to purchase something, but demand to have all record of the transaction erased, particularly when dealing with non-cash transactions.

Now, if this were a third-party, say a government agency monitoring private transactions and using it to, I dunno, decide who gets awarded public grants, that I would have a problem with, if it were done without the knowledge and consent of all other actors.

Nurlip (profile) says:

So using a single data point is the equivalent of ‘Surveillance’ (as the buzzword is used here)? I honestly read the headline and thought i was still on the gawker portion of my feeds…
Yes, this is ‘ok’. For reference, You walk into any major department store in the whole USA and you are being legally surveiled by more than one ‘data point’ aka camera w/ image recognition software stalking you throughout your entire visit. Is that ok? Thats not even gubment surveylense but the law says it’s ok.

Personally i worked for a university that monitored students’ federal work study stipends and awarded more money to those who used it all (when there was a surplus) and met the grading criteria to continue in the program. That’s at least 3 ‘survelliance’ data points monitored by a ‘state’ school. This was also done w/o a facebook post listing each student so it was ‘china style’ discreet i guess.

SHUT IT DOWN!? No. Just make sure there is oversight so the program isn’t being abused.

Also, universities that are eligilbe to award work study grants are required to monitor the ‘award status’ (gpa and hours worked each week) of each recipient. It’s a great program and China’s sounds similar if not even more discreet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Most Western universities are doing similar things, collecting “big data” on students’ use of all their online systems, Wi-Fi usage, library etc., and merging it with demographic and academic data, to model student risk profiles (risk of failing or dropping out). It is wrong because, like with Google, Microsoft, and a million other companies, there is no real informed consent. Many students would be aghast if they understood exactly what was going on, especially with Wi-Fi data. But it does work extremely well. There is great potential to target services to those who really need them. But there is also potential for abuse. Children should be educated to understand what machine learning is. Everybody should be.

Ninja (profile) says:

I wonder how the cards mentioned work. Are they private stuff like a credit card? (I know there isn’t much privacy, the company knows everything you buy with the card but at the very least it isn’t the government; the rest of the implications are a discussion for another time)

If the card is issued by the govt or the university then it might be less of a problem but if it is a private thing then I have tons of problems with it even if the intentions are good (remember the road to hell?). A better approach would be to give discounts for students if they show their student ids and use that to provide such incentives when needed. Though this would have problems as well.

So summarizing, nope, not ok as it is.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t get this position. You’re ok with the school collecting sales data in their cafeteria, and you’re ok with the school giving funds to students that need them, but when they use the sales data to determine who needs funds they’ve suddenly crossed a line?

The cards in question are likely reloadable cards given out by the school for use in the cafeteria or school stores, not students’ personal credit cards. (My school had the same thing.) Not that it matters, because the data is available to them at point of sale regardless.

Anonymous Coward says:

So, OK, the students did what the government wanted them to do and then rewarded them with some money. Cool. But, where is the other story about those who ate in the “cheap” cafeteria but spent frivolously on video games, beer, and Slurpees**? Were the additional purchases “bad purchases” so they didn’t get any additional money? Lets see the whole program before we say that it is good.

**I figure that they don’t have Slurpees in China, but whatever their equivalent is.

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