by Nico Perrino
It monitors email and social media accounts, uses thousands of surveillance cameras to track behavior and movement, is funded by billions of dollars from the federal government, and has been called “the most authoritarian institution in America“.
The National Security Agency? Nope. It’s your average college or university.
Earlier this year, when Harvard University violated school policy by secretly searching deans’ email accounts, the world glimpsed the intrusive measures one school took to monitor online activity of its staff. “We needed to act to protect our students,” said then-dean of Harvard College Evelynn Hammonds, who authorized the search in response to leaked information about a high-profile cheating scandal at the Ivy League institution.
But at schools across the country, administrators use similarly invasive surveillance tools to monitor everything from students’ off-campus behavior to their online speech. University lawyers and administrators claim such surveillance programs are necessary to “protect” their stakeholders. But in reality, these actions are often just heavy-handed strategies colleges use to control their public image – at students’ expense.
As a former college athlete, I’m all too familiar with this phenomenon. Many athletic departments hire companies like UDiligence and Varsity Monitor to watch after the social media profiles of their student athletes. The services search for keywords in athletes’ profiles and alert coaches or administrators when they are used. Words or phrases like “Benjamins”, “Sam Adams”, and, bizarrely, “Gazongas” are among those keywords flagged by the monitoring programs.
Although my particular school did not use one of these programs, my team’s media relations official kept close tabs on the op-eds I wrote for the student newspaper and other outlets and pulled me aside when he didn’t like the direction of one of the pieces. The practice is chilling, yes, but for some students, it can get much worse.
In 2007, Valdosta State University student Hayden Barnes was expelled without due process (pdf) for protesting University President Ronald Zaccari’s plan to spend $30m of student fee money on building campus parking garages. Zaccari went to extreme lengths to mute Barnes’ criticism: he monitored Barnes’ Facebook page, ordered university staff to look into his health, and ultimately had an expulsion note slipped under his dorm room door that identified him as a “clear and present danger” to campus. (In 2012, the Eleventh Circuit US Court of Appeals held Zaccari personally liable for violating Barnes’ legal rights.)
In another brazen exercise of snooping and censorship, St Augustine’s College (SAC) in North Carolina punished student Roman Caple in 2011 for a Facebook post on the college’s official page that, according to the school’s vice president of student affairs, “jeopardized the integrity of the college”. The offending post simply called for fellow students to “come correct, be prepared, and have supporting documents” at a public meeting where campus leaders were scheduled to discuss the school’s response to a recent tornado that cut off power to many SAC students.
Lately, tracking student social media has gotten so out of control that Delaware and California have passed legislation limiting schools’ ability to do such monitoring.
But as we know from the Harvard imbroglio, the monitoring of online activity isn’t limited to students. Last month, a professor at Johns Hopkins University wrote a blog post critical of the NSA and was asked to take it down and stop using the NSA logo by one of the school’s deans. (The school later apologized.) And at Occidental College, administrators recently confiscated the computers and cell phones of at least eight faculty members and dozens of staff members allegedly as part of an ongoing investigation by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) into campus sexual assault procedures. But in an interview with The Huffington Post, an OCR official said that “OCR did not require Occidental to confiscate faculty members’ laptops and cells”.
Nor is the monitoring of students’ lives limited to what they do online. Presumably to ensure they don’t miss those moments when students are away from their computers, administrators at the University of Kentucky (UK) released a plan to install 2,000 surveillance cameras on campus and give students new ID cards that will contain chips that can track student movements in and out of buildings. In an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, UK police Chief Joe Monroe said that the plan will give the school an “unprecedented capability for monitoring the campus for crime and protecting our students, employees and visitors”. But as a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Kentucky told the Herald-Leader, the program is ripe for misuse depending how information is used and how long it is kept.
For colleges like UK, these new security measures might be genuine attempts to make campuses safer, not just efforts to control public image under the cloak of campus security language. After all, there is an understandably heightened sense of concern for campus safety following events like the massacre at Virginia Tech University in 2007. But just as many critics argue the NSA snooping programs trade away too much of our liberty in an effort to enhance safety, organizations like the the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, contend that the actions some schools take to monitor their students are not just illiberal, but can be unconstitutional.
A settlement agreement earlier this year between the Departments of Justice and Education and the University of Montana defined sexual harassment as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal conduct” (read: speech) for the purposes of allegedly encouraging reporting on cases of suspected sexual harassment. Well-intentioned? Perhaps. But the federal government’s new definition of sexual harassment can encompass a wide swath of online and offline protected speech. And the feds may no more require the reporting of subjectively offensive but constitutionally protected speech as “harassment” than it may require the reporting of “unpatriotic” speech as treason.
As a result of schools’ increased interest in monitoring their communities for potential threats, a whole campus security industry has sprouted up that has caught the eye of civil libertarians. At a recent National Behavioral Intervention Team Association conference, the group organized sessions on “fostering a comprehensive reporting culture within the institution” (See something? Say something, one supposes) and “using mandated psychological assessments” (“using” for what, one might ask).
The controversy over government surveillance in the name of national security has naturally raised questions about how much monitoring is justified to protect the nation from the security challenges it faces. But as the discussion unfolds, we should not be led to believe that intrusions into our privacy are limited to just one government agency based in Maryland. On the contrary, on thousands of campuses across the country, college administrators engage in similar monitoring practices with similar justifications in mind. And often administrators’ and universities’ reputations, not anyone’s safety, appear to be what’s at stake.
There is a growing culture of surveillance in America. To roll it back, we must take into account its entire scope.