Brown University has a surveillance camera for every nine undergraduate students, based on the analysis of a doctoral candidate.
According to PhD candidate Jack Wrenn, Brown has 816 cameras across campus, which is roughly the amount of full-time faculty. Brown enrolls approximately 7,160 undergraduate students.
“Since 2017, my friends and I have marked the locations of approximately 150 surveillance cameras on College Hill. While this is only a fraction of Brown University’s more than 800 cameras, the scope of the surveillance is staggering: It is impossible to cross (or even approach) Brown University without being surveilled,” wrote Wrenn in the Brown Daily Herald.
Wrenn has been raising the issue of what he says is “seemingly limitless surveillance” at the Ivy League institution — and he voiced his most recent concerns just as the university came under a suspected cyberattack this past week.
“My impression is that students are concerned about the University’s pervasive surveillance of their daily lives,” Wrenn told GoLocalProv.com.
Wrenn said then to set out to attempt to write a technical-but-accessible guide to how system administrators can track people’s locations — that garnered coverage on the front pages of both Hacker News and Reddit.
“Sure, students know that there are security cameras, but do they know there are more cameras than full-time faculty!? Of course not,” said Wrenn. “Students don’t ‘agree’ to being surveilled; they aren’t even aware they’re being surveilled! How could they possibly consent?”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has raised repeated concerns about surveillance by the government.
In Rhode Island, the ACLU issued a report on what they said was the “alarming lack of privacy protections” for K-12 families as it pertained to school-issued laptops being distributed during the pandemic — and what information the schools could use — or access.
Call for Awareness
“It’s vital that we all grapple with the tension between the convenience of technology and personal privacy. It’s vital that we push back on the notion that the sacrifice of privacy is the unavoidable cost of progress,” Wrenn told GoLocal. “This is going to require a shift in both understanding and attitude”
“We all need to make an effort to understand how technology impacts our personal privacy,” said Wrenn. “We need to ditch the attitude that the loss of privacy is inevitable; rather we should constantly and openly weigh the benefits of technology with its costs.”
As GoLocal reported last week, Brown came under a suspected cyberattack that shut some systems down temporarily.
“Because the security threat most directly affects the Microsoft Windows operating system, it is essential that we have as few Windows-based computers running on campus as possible as we work to mitigate this issue,” wrote Brown’s Chief Digital Officer and Chief Information Officer in a message to the Brown community last Tuesday.
“For that reason, we ask that faculty and staff who are on Brown’s physical campus or who logged in via VPN using a Windows-based computer, temporarily halt use of those machines, relying instead on smartphones, tablets or computers that run on other operating systems,” Thirsk continued.
Wrenn urged students to be aware of the role that technology has on campus not just for their work and life needs, but how it impacts their privacy.
“First and foremost, there needs to be more awareness about the capacity of technology to be used to surveilled. It is only with this awareness, that we can give our informed consent,” said Wrenn.
“In the short term, Brown University should make it easy for students to view all the information the University stores about them, a right that’s already guaranteed in Europe by the GDPR,” said Wrenn.
“In the long-term, Brown should examine if it can reduce its surveillance of students. Does Brown really need to keep a record of every building I’ve entered? Do they really need to keep a record of every time and place I’ve logged into my Brown account? Do they really need more security cameras than full-time faculty?” he added.
“I suspect the answer to many of these questions is no. I sympathize with how tempting it is to monitor and save everything, but this is an enormous expense and liability,” he said. “In the wake of Brown’s cybersecurity breach, I find myself wondering: What personal information about me did hackers get, that Brown didn’t need to be storing in the first place?”
Brown did not respond to request for comment on the university’s surveillance.