IIT Madras students urge admin to roll back new facial recognition attendance system 

Student collective ChintaBAR expresses students’ concern that the data might be misused by the administration to monitor student activity 
Pic: EdexLive
Pic: EdexLive

Students of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras are pushing back against the new facial recognition-based attendance system, which has been put in place by the administration of the institute.

In an email sent to Director V Kamakoti and other authorities on September 8, Friday, ChintaBAR, a student activist collective of IIT Madras, raised several concerns about the new facial recognition system. 

Primarily, the concern of the students is that the decision to implement this system has been taken by the administration without any prior communication or dialogue with them and that their concerns and opinions were not considered in the decision-making process – especially considering that it involves something as sensitive as their personal data. 

The email asks...

Highlighting this concern in the email, ChintBAR questioned, “Before such a transition, especially one that involves private information, isn’t it necessary to have active discussions with all the concerned parties?” 

A spokesperson from the collective, in a conversation with EdexLive on the condition of anonymity, shares that this is a running theme in the administration’s functioning. He elaborates, “The administration tends to introduce new rules and norms at the eleventh hour, and students are expected to adhere to them with immediate effect,” he says, adding that the students must at least be given sufficient buffer time to adjust to the new rules. 

The email further says that there has been no official communication about this transition to a new attendance system with the students, except for a few throwaway mentions made by the director of the institute. “The only official in this regard in any form was the mail asking students to submit their facial recognition data,” the email reads.   

Adding to this grievance, ChintaBAR says, is the fact that the administration has given no further clarity on how this new system would be implemented. This lack of communication, they say, has only “created much confusion among students around the actual workings of the system”.

The new facial recognition system would also “put a hold on the flexibility regarding attendance that some professors offered, owing to the nature of the course and teaching methods,” ChintaBAR says. 

Misuse of data?

Elaborating on this, the spokesperson explains to EdexLive, “As classes are spread out on the campus, the professors relax the time of entry as a result. They still give students attendance if they arrive a few minutes late to the class. Would the same be guaranteed under the new attendance system?” and adds that this would put students under a lot of unnecessary pressure. 

Most importantly, students worry that this system would be misused to surveil the students. “Whatever the current rationale behind the decision is, this data can be effectively misused to establish surveillance systems that can monitor all activity on campus,” ChintaBAR writes in the email. 

A check on student suicides

The spokesperson, however, clarifies that neither ChintaBAR nor the students are particularly against an automated attendance system. “The context in which the director made these comments was the rising number of student suicides in IITs. Through facial attendance, the administration thinks that it can check which students are turning up to college, and identify the ones that aren’t. If the latter are isolating themselves due to depression, the administration could potentially reach out to them and offer them help,” the spokesperson reveals. 

However, he says that it would have been better if the decision had been taken after more thought and consultation with students. “We believe that the decision has come without considering various aspects of it. It is disheartening to see important decisions being taken without any active discussion with the students,” ChintaBAR writes to the director. 

As such, ChintaBAR finally urges the director to suspend the use of the new attendance mechanism for the time being and open the issue of its use for discussion with all concerned parties. 

In the meanwhile, EdexLive has reached out to IIT Madras for a comment on the matter. The copy would be updated accordingly, as and when the response arrives. 

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