Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Harvard Still Doesn't Get Electronic Privacy

I asked the following question at today's FAS meeting. Hopefully the news media present will report the reply, as I cannot comment on it until the person who gave it authorizes some reporting on it. I will just say that I found the response unsatisfactory. The incident is just as bizarre as it sounds, and I don't know much more about it that I can disclose.
Madam President, I learned recently from two of my faculty colleagues that students in their courses had been surreptitiously photographed throughout the past spring term using cameras trained on the seats in the lecture hall. This was done under the cloak of research on class attendance. A senior university official called in these professors and explained that by means of this electronic monitoring, images of all the students in attendance had been captured at each class. These faculty colleagues, neither of them tenured, first learned that their classes had been under surveillance when this senior Central Administration official called them in, without informing the Computer Science area dean, and asked them to comment on the attendance data. And contrary to a basic principle of research involving human subjects, the students who were subjects of this study still, I believe, have not been informed that their images were captured and analyzed.  
This study raises many important and troubling questions. Questions about the oversight relations between faculty, deans, and department heads in the FAS, and the plethora of provosts we now have. Questions about who controls the classrooms in which we teach—this study seems to me at odds with a vote of this Faculty that describes the classroom as “a special forum” where the teacher determines the agenda. But I will focus on just the most obvious and urgent action item.  
This university took great efforts under your leadership and Professor Barron’s to get a grip on issues of electronic privacy. Yet some basic principles seem not to have sunk in everywhere. Just because technology can be used to answer a question doesn’t mean that it should be. And if you watch people electronically and don’t tell them ahead of time, you should tell them afterwards. 
We would all benefit, I think, from more peer feedback on our teaching. But none of us, students or faculty, want to be treated like inmates of some academic Panopticon, never knowing for sure whether we are being or have been under scrutiny while we were going about our daily business of teaching and learning.  Can we have your assurance that all the students and faculty who were subjects of this nonconsensual study will be informed that they were under photographic surveillance? 


  1. If only there was some book that they could have read to make them more informed about the pros and cons and social effect of technology, of how
    the current technology threatens to blow to bits many social assumptions.

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