Chinese university says new classroom facial recognition system will improve attendance

A university in eastern China has installed a facial recognition system at its entrance and in two classrooms to monitor the attendance and behaviour of students.

On Thursday, China Pharmaceutical University in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, announced on its website that it was one of the first higher education institutions in the country to put such a security system in place.

"It can effectively solve the management difficulties and low efficiencies in a traditional attendance system, and make it easier for managers to track their students," news portal quoted Xu Jianzhen, director of the university's library and information centre, as saying.

In a pilot project, two classrooms were equipped with an attendance system using facial recognition software, with a camera that automatically captured the faces of students in class without their co-operation, the university website said.

"Besides attendance, the system installed in the classroom can provide surveillance of the students' learning conditions, such as whether they were listening to the lectures, how many times they raised their heads, [or] whether they were playing on their phones or falling asleep," Xu told The Paper.

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"The school is taking action to cut down on class-skipping, leaving classes early, paying for a substitute to attend classes and not listening in class," he said.

The plan was not well received online, and some sceptics said they feared for the privacy of staff and pupils.

"What kind of talents are they trying to cultivate?" a user of the Twitter-style Weibo network asked. "I've never seen such a method."

"If this system was being installed in Europe or America, they'd be sued until the school closed down," another Weibo user said.

Xu told The Paper that the university had consulted the police and legal authorities and he said the system would not be considered an invasion of privacy as classrooms were public spaces.

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"You are complaining about [a system] that's meant to urge you to learn? Are you a student?" he said.

The university will listen to feedback from teaching staff before deciding on whether to install facial recognition systems in all classrooms, it said.

In May 2018, a school in Hangzhou, the capital of eastern Zhejiang province, installed cameras to monitor pupils' facial expressions and attentiveness in class as part of the school's Smart Classroom Behaviour Management System to give teachers real-time information on their students.

Elsewhere, facial recognition has been used to catch unlicensed drivers in the southern technology hub of Shenzhen in Guangdong province; jaywalkers in Shanghai, and criminal suspects at public events across China.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.