Colleges Surveilling Students

There was an interesting article today in The New York Times. Essentially, many major universities track their students smartphones all the time. Some 1.5m students.

The justification is data. In theory, it makes it easy to tell when students are in class, are late or away. It can monitor when students are not leaving their dorms or going to the cafeteria. Students can thus be monitored for signs of depression, anxiety or eating disorders. And parents can be happier knowing that their adult children are attending class. Athletes require a certain amount of class time and this can also be looked at. Some professors say it improves attendance and behaviour, since students know they are tracked.

Some students complain the data is unreliable and professors trust the data more than students if they say they are in class but the system says they are not. Many complain they are adults and this monitoring intrudes on their privacy. Most say they did not consent to this when they signed up for campus wi-fi, and this normalizes surveillance. Students who opt out are allegedly demarginalized.

Some questions.

  1. Lack of meaningful consent, irrespective of data usefulness, would seem to be an enormous legal risk. Especially in the US. Why is this true, or not true?

  2. Of course there are less intrusive ways of checking class attendance or adjustment to student life. Are these preferable?

  3. It has been claimed rates of depression and anxiety are increasing. This has been blamed on increasing screen time, less “in person” social interaction, and helicopter parenting. Parenting is a very difficult task and I am not prepared to criticize during a period of considerable social and technological change. But is increased regimentation healthy, or does it increase mood disorders?

I hadn’t heard of this, but as a college professor, I think it’s appalling. (It’s also understandable, since institutions are basically incentivized to retain students at all costs – regardless of whether the means they use to achieve this are good for the student.)

Welcome to the 21st century! Please enjoy your stay!

Got a link even if it’s paywalled?

Without more information, this sounds like tin foil hat paranoia about what ‘could’ happen.

I’ll have to check the MyFSU app, I think it did have an opt in feature to allow tracking, but that was only for campus safety. I can’t imagine the FSU gods are tracking an alumnus 1500 miles away from Tallahassee.

Tracking if someone’s in class? Again that sounds odd. As a political science major, it wasn’t uncommon for the professor to say there’s no lecture Thursday but go to the statehouse and watch a committee hearing or go visit a party headquarters.

I was mistaken. It is in today’s (Dec. 24) Washington Post, in an article titled “Colleges are turning students phones into surveillance machines”. I have a subscription, and apologize for not linking it.


“Where was I, professor? Why, I was attending your class, of course. Naturally, when I’m in class I always switch off my phone or put it in airplane mode–to do otherwise would be disrespectful.”

[del]Big[/del] Little Brothers Are Watching.

Found the article and it’s in serious need of a good editor.

I opened that in a private window.

So airplane mode doesn’t work. That’s a little bit creepy, but if it only logs whether you are actually there, it’s not too bad.

So apparently the surveillance in the classroom is a publicly announced policy which the students know about.
It’s basically just an attendance sheet.
That’s reasonable.
I think I had one or two professors 40 years ago who required attendance,and would penalize students who missed too many classes.
But if it’s full-scale Big Brother surveillance all over the campus without being publicly declared, and in areas where attendance is not required, that’s a different issue which I would not accept.

But turning off Bluetooth does.

According to the WaPo article, this is the case. Your movements are monitored in detail. If I remember right (hold on, I’ll go back and read it again right now . . .)

Yes, here it is:

They know when you are in your dorm. They know when you are in the library. They know when you are in the cafeteria. They know when you are off-campus. They know when you’re sleeping. They know when you’re awake. They know when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

They are watching for behavior patterns. They categorize students into various demographics, and build statistical behavior patterns for this demographics. They watch for students who fall outside the normalized behavior patterns for their demographic. They send college advisors to knock on the student’s dorm door if the suspect problems. They are looking for signs of depression or other red flags.

The article mentions that students can opt out, but doesn’t go into detail about that. It looks like at least one system requires students to opt in, but there is a two week deadline that isn’t very well publicized, and it seems to imply that students are automatically opted in if they miss that deadline (but it doesn’t actually say that). It doesn’t discuss what the repercussions may be, if any, for students who opt out.

The article mentions that some students may not even have smart phones, and seems to imply that they might get marginalized in some ways. It doesn’t mention the notion that some students might simply opt to leave their smart-phones in their dorms.

ETA: What next? Mandatory ankle bracelets for all students?

Airplane mode turns off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth along with telephony–everything that would require the phone to transmit radio signals. (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can then be manually re-enabled.)

It does not log whether you were there.

It logs whether your PHONE was there.

Big difference

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the reasons we have location spoofing apps.

Gee professor, you saw me at your lecture. I have no idea why your tracker says I was at Miami Beach.

Or, just turn your phone off and only turn it on occasionally, like when you’re having a coffee between classes. After all, profs don’t want your phone to start ringing in the middle of their lectures.

When I was a student, 65 years ago, colleges were in loco parentis. Professors were expected to take role and to penalize students who were overcut (you were limited to twice the number of hours per week). Men were not permitted in women’s dorms and vice versa. Forward to the past!

What does it even mean to be “automatically opted in” that’s distinct from a system being “opt out”?

An automated system to track attendance at classes doesn’t seem terrible to me. Like, you’re supposed to go to class, and it’s worth some points, and this saves having to take roll which wastes everyone’s time.

Everything else seems awful.

Sure, you can put your phone in airplane mode, but that means you can’t use your phone the way you want. A fun way to fuck with their data would be to buy a handful of whatever the cheapest smartphone you can find is and just trade them around with other students every day or two. But that’s not a real solution either.

The idea that you can fix a surveillance society by making individual choices with your devices is naive. You can at best lessen its impact on you slightly for a while. The only way to really solve this is with policy. People need to care that it’s wrong to just track everyone all the time because it happens to be useful in some ways.

I’m just concerned that many younger people don’t seem to have a concept of how much their privacy is being invaded and why that’s bad, and aren’t good at saying “no” to unreasonable requests.

I think that many people just aren’t clear as to why so much surveillance could be such a bad thing.

Look at all the discussions about what so bad about it: Most of the discussion I’ve seen revolves around all the unwanted target advertising you’re going to get, on the web sites you view, in your e-mail span, maybe even coming soon on the Smart TV you watch.

There seems to be less discussion about dangers of stalkers, angry exes, disgruntled employees getting your home address, credit card information, and other such details. Yes, it’s discussed, but the bulk of the discussions I’ve seen all seem to focus on all that evil targeted advertising.

There is even less discussion – yes, some, but less – about government surveillance. The Man can know who’s attending protest rallies, who drove too fast on the tollway, who watered their lawns on Thursday – everything from trivial stuff to major stuff. Nobody seems to take all this too seriously, especially about governments using surveillance to oppress. Nobody thinks seriously that It Can Happen Here.

Yes, It Can Happen Here.

New job for an enterprising student: “For a dollar, I’ll carry your phone in my briefcase and you won’t have to go to class.”