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. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jul 2017 @ 11:57pm

    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.

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