School Sensors Debate: Security Measure or Privacy Invasion?

01-03-2024 | By Robin Mitchell

Key things to know:

  • UK schools are installing sensors in student toilets to combat bullying and vaping, sparking a debate on privacy and safety.
  • Critics, including Big Brother Watch, argue that such surveillance measures infringe on students' privacy rights and could foster a mistrustful environment.
  • The sensors are designed to detect specific keywords and air quality indicators, aiming to alert staff in real-time to incidents within these private spaces.
  • The effectiveness and ethical implications of these sensors are under scrutiny, with concerns about potential abuse and the need for less intrusive solutions.

In what can only be described as beyond creepy, some schools in the UK have started to install sensors into student toilets to identify potential bullying and vaping. However, while the use of sensors may originate from good intentions, it opens up a Pandora’s box of potential abuse. What challenges do toilet environments present to educators, what are some schools starting to do, and why is the use of sensors in such environments a recipe for disaster?

Students and Bathrooms – A dangerous mix

Anyone who is reading this article will likely have been a student in a typical school, making friends of all age groups, learning about the wonders of the world, and, from time to time, getting up to no good. But while passing notes in class and making fun of the odd teacher for doing something embarrassing is perfectly normal behaviour, there are other behaviours and traits that are somewhat more concerning. 

One such behaviour is bullying, which itself can be traumatising for those who fall victim to it. In fact, there are countless cases of student suicides and acts of gross violence which directly arise from bullying, hence the importance of stopping bullying in all its forms. 

Sadly, trying to catch bullying in the act is often extremely difficult, as those who bully will do so when not under supervision (arising from cowardice). Furthermore, bullying isn’t just a physical phenomenon, as verbal bullying can be just as devastating if not more than physical bullying. In many ways, it is far easier to prevent a bully from physically assaulting students than it is to prevent an entire year group from ostracising a single student.

To make matters worse, bullies will often look for areas that are secluded and/or private so that they can reduce the chance of getting caught, which makes bathrooms prime locations. Due to the private nature of such areas, installing cameras is out of the question, and having staff situated on-site introduces all kinds of privacy issues and impacts the safety of students.

Of course, bullying isn’t the only issue that can occur in such spaces; the rise of vaping has seen large amounts of uptake amongst under-18s due to their easy access, reduced toxicity compared to regular tobacco, and ability to be extremely discrete. While vaping itself is significantly less dangerous compared to regular tobacco, there is concern that it could still be introducing toxins into the body as well as encouraging other behaviours, including potential drug use. 

Schools in the UK introducing sensors into toilets

In response to the challenges faced by staff with regard to vaping and bullying, some schools across the UK have begun to introduce smart sensors into bathrooms that actively listen to students and detect air quality. 

The initiative, as detailed by Schools Week, has been met with mixed reactions. On one hand, it represents a proactive step towards mitigating issues like vaping and bullying within school premises. These sensors, equipped with the capability to recognise specific keywords and monitor for signs of vaping, aim to alert staff in real-time, thereby enabling swift intervention. However, this technological solution has also raised significant privacy concerns, with critics arguing that it encroaches on students' rights to privacy and could foster an environment of surveillance rather than trust.

In the case of vaping, specialised vape sensors that can detect the by-products of vaping (such as glycerol) are required, as regular smoke alarms cannot detect vaping. But in the case of bullying, such devices are turning to keyword detection via on-device AI.

By looking for key phrases, such as “help me” and “stop it”, it becomes possible for such devices to identify potential cases of bullying and sexual assault as it happens and then inform staff members to enable real-time responses. Furthermore, as such devices can be networked, it also becomes possible for messages to be sent to remote devices regardless of where they are, thus allowing staff off-site to be notified.

The debate around these sensors is not just about their effectiveness but also their impact on students' perception of privacy. Big Brother Watch has voiced strong opposition to this approach, labeling it a "gross violation of children's privacy" (Big Brother Watch). The organisation stresses the importance of safeguarding children's rights in educational settings, urging schools to seek less intrusive methods for addressing disciplinary issues. This highlights the complex balance schools must navigate between leveraging technology for safety and maintaining a respectful and trusting educational environment.

While numerous device managers exist, two that have received special attention are Halo Devices, which can be preprogrammed with keywords, and 3D Sense Pro Sensor (from Triton), which comes with ten preprogrammed phrases and space for ten additional phrases. Such sensors have already been deployed in around 1,500 schools across the US, and it is believed that around 30 to 40 devices have been used in the UK, with device manufacturers anticipating greater adoption throughout the next few years.

Why are such sensors a recipe for disasters?

No one can deny that bullying is a disgusting practice and that students, parents, and teachers should do everything they can to identify and stop it. However, there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed, and the installation of sensors into private spaces where students are exceptionally vulnerable clearly crosses this line. 

While the technology itself may be benign to some degree, the use of such technology in bathrooms is ripe for abuse. For example, it wouldn’t be difficult for anyone, student or staff, to partially dismantle such hardware and integrate other equipment, such as cameras and/or microphones. 

For those with more technical capabilities, such sensors could potentially be hacked and adjusted to stream conversations in real time. If such sensors are connected to a network with internet access, then it also becomes possible for hackers anywhere in the world to gain entry and upload firmware that allows for remote control. 

To make matters worse, it wouldn’t be entirely difficult for an engineer to fake such a device, adding all kinds of surveillance hardware while providing similar features to other mainstream alternatives. This would leave students extremely vulnerable to predation, which itself could last for years. 

Overall, the idea of installing sensors in a student bathroom to monitor for bullying is a complete invasion of privacy and something that must be discouraged, if not outlawed. 


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.