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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Filed Under: china, financial aid, privacy, surveillance


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  1. icon
    Kal Zekdor (profile), 24 Jul 2017 @ 7:23pm

    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.

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