China issues 17,000 smart watches to pupils to track movements

Sophia Yan
The programme is voluntary, and will expand to elderly people - Weibo

A local government in southern China has handed out smart watches to nearly 17,000 primary school pupils, capable of pinging their real-time locations and emergency alerts to their parents.

The watches, distributed to students in 60 schools, are equipped with chips powered by BeiDou, China’s own version of GPS, according to the Guangzhou Daily, a Chinese state media outlet. GPS is a system developed and owned by the US government.

“With this watch, Mom and Dad can know where I am, and I can call and voice message them immediately after class,” one enthusiastic fourth-grader told state media.

The smart watch-tracking government program is entirely voluntary and about half of the devices distributed have already come online. Plans are in place to issue another 13,000 smart watches to students, and the authorities will soon begin handing them out to elderly people.

User information will be uploaded to a database maintained by China’s ministry of public security and the ministry of industry and information technology, according to state media.

Cities in China have been getting creative in finding new ways to monitor students and curb truancy with the latest technologies.

In December, more than ten schools in Guizhou and Guangxi provinces began requiring students to wear “intelligent uniforms” embedded with computer chips to track their movements and trigger an alarm if they skip class, according to state media.

China sent a satellite of the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System into space in June Credit: Xinhua / Barcroft Media

Two chips, sown into the shoulders of school jackets, can sustain around 500 wash cycles and temperatures of 150 degrees Celsius.

Facial recognition scanners at school gates match the chips with the correct students, meaning anyone who tries to swap jackets in order to play truant will be caught. Alarms will also sound if a pupil falls asleep in class.

Last May, a high school in Hangzhou installed facial recognition technology to check how attentive pupils were in class.

Movements of students are watched by three cameras positioned above the blackboard, and can pick up seven different emotions, including neutral, happy, sad, disappointed, angry, scared and surprised. If the technology concludes a student is distracted in class, it will send a notification to the teacher to take action.

BeiDou was originally developed by the Chinese military to reduce reliance on the US-owned GPS system, but its positioning accuracy is to within 10 metres while GPS can track down to 30 centimetres.

In efforts to speed up adoption of the system, Chinese authorities have ordered taxis, buses and other vehicles to install BeiDou, and many domestic phone brands including Huawei and Xiaomi are now also compatible with the system.

There are only a handful of other global satellite navigation systems, including Russia’s Glonass and Europe’s Galileo, which has suffered an outage over the last two weeks.

The UK has been involved in developing Galileo, sinking £1.2 billion in the project, but now intends to build its own as part of Brexit fallout.