Friday, November 07, 2014

Harvard snooped on everyone in classrooms

Students and faculty were not informed

For several days, the Harvard Crimson's most read article was
Bol Authorized Study that Photographed Faculty, Students in Class without Notice
I am not going to be too original in this case but it is creepy. The decision to install cameras in classrooms to monitor attendance by taking photographs – probably with some face recognition software – was approved by a vice-provost (for "advances in learning"), Mr Bol.

OK, these "ladies" wouldn't mind if they were photographed naked. But maybe someone else could mind.

Not satisfied with its status of a training camp of extreme left-wing whackos, Harvard became a CIA playground, too.

Most people's reactions are negative or very negative. I can imagine that such a monitoring could become a very useful technology. But I am just not understanding why would someone introduce such a highly problematic policy secretly. If the purpose is to monitor the attendance, shouldn't the Harvard community have been told about the project in advance?

I feel that some laws about the privacy must have been violated. Am I wrong? Do the students and faculty have the opportunity to sue Harvard and demand some compensations?

While it's a disturbing story, it shows Harvard's being a leader in new ideas, too. But shouldn't such decisions potentially conflicting with the good taste concerning privacy be tried at less visible places?

If I mention an innocent example, Google Street View: There's almost nothing sensitive over there and if there is anything sensitive, it is being removed. But some countries still prefer to ban this service. Czechia is among the most open-minded ones. You may find almost every Czech street on the Street View.

Wouldn't it be better to try such cutting-edge programs at schools that are least problematic from this viewpoint? And once it turns out to be a success, it could spread elsewhere, with the permission of the university community? But maybe Harvard is the best place to try these 1984-style experiments.

Or was the purpose of the program to keep it secret – and effectively in conflict with the affected people's wishes – forever? Or was there some "extra" purpose of this activity we are not being told about? In that case, it would be worrisome, indeed.

What's even more ironic is that it is not the first time in recent years when similar procedures have been reported at Harvard. Last March, Harvard administrators searched through e-mail inboxes of 16 deans who were accused of a leak related to the investigation of the 100+ students cheating on take-home exams in the course about the Congress.

Is there a pattern here?


  1. >"...But I am just not understanding why would someone introduce such a highly problematic policy secretly. ..."

    Come on, Lubos. Really? Because he knows very well, that people would skin him alive for even trying to do this.

    The only option was to have it installed secretly and hoping that nobody will find out until he retires.

    And the purpose of all this is easing people in. This time people will be outraged, next time somebody tries it, it will feel less inappropriate, and so on... The idea is to ease people into being spied on. Think of the Facebook. Nowadays people publicize kind of information which nobody would dare to ask you 20 years ago.

  2. hope they dont have cameras in this Harvard "class" ---

  3. For what reason? Harvard is a private
    university and its students pay thousands of dollars. Annoy customers no sense. For example BurgerKing does not make pictures of customers by having an agreement with the government to accustom people to be spied.

    And of course who does not want to attend a class, it is his issue.

    It might be understandable if the photos were taken from behind, with the simple purpose of counting the number of students attending each conference. ("research effort to study student attendance in lectures." as they say )

  4. Neither Harvard nor MIT have distinguished themselves in the ongoing fight against pervasive surveillance and excessive government control. The Aaron Schwartz tragedy too was brought about by bureaucratic concern is for convenience, regardless of the human cost. And just like at Harvard, there has been no recognition that anything is wrong.

  5. It would be even more understandable if pics were taken upskirt. I don't know if a lot of hotties attend Harvard, however. From some Lubo's comments I infer that liberal feminists may be in vogue there. Or were.

  6. Dear Honzo, I agree with Fer137. This is a huge-risk, low-benefit project affecting very rich consumers.

    If someone hoped that no one would find out until he retires, it didn't work too well, did it? More generally, I doubt that a creepy project of a similar magnitude could go unnoticed for that long.

    At the end, I also disagree with your suggestion that people are willing to share more private data than 20 years ago. Such people have always existed - most of the ordinary people have never had a problem with that. It's really the geeks who understand computers who tend to be more secretive which is why the chatrooms and bulletin services etc. 20 years ago were asking fewer private data. But when Facebook began to share these private data and pictures and attracted the same kind of people as today - which is already the ordinary people - they began to reveal "everything" instantly.

  7. Swartz was ahead of his time

    A victim cut-down in his prime

    His criminal deed

    To help those in need?

    I no longer understand “crime”

    The Limerick King